British Council, Uni or Work Placement?

It’s difficult choosing how to spend your Year Abroad. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages.  Whether you have no idea of what to pick, or if you’ve already decided and just need that last bit of reassurance, the following guide will help you make up your mind.

Please note the experiences in this post are from students currently in France. However their pros and cons will be similar to those working and studying in other host countries.

1. British Council

Lizzie Freeman

Advantages

  • The amount of wages you earn. I earn just short of 800 euros a month, plenty to be able to travel lots whilst on your Year Abroad and see lots of different places but also live comfortably. You may even make money on your Year Abroad. This leads me on to my next advantage…
  • Not only is it paid well, the hours are great! You should only be working 12 hours a week. That’s similar to the amount of contact time at Uni. This means that you have lots of free time in which to travel  with the money you earn. For example, in the last two months I’ve visited Luxembourg for a day, the South Coast for a week, Paris twice, had a two-day break in Lille, started exploring parts of Belgium and this weekend I’m going on a day trip to Strasbourg.
  • The school is likely to have somewhere for you to stay. This won’t necessarily be the case for all but my school did for me and this has been the case for most other language assistants that I know. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay rent but it’s likely to be cheaper than for an ordinary flat or apartment. Of course you don’t have to accept the accommodation, you can find it elsewhere which may be of a higher standard but if the school offer you any it will be perfectly adequate. Accepting their accommodation is a lot easier than having to find your own, especially in a more rural place where there might not be much nearby on offer, even if it’s only for a month or so while you get yourself settled and find a place away from the school.
  • From my experience the teachers you’ll be working alongside will sort of take on the role of your parents. Not for everything, you can’t ask them to transfer a bit of extra spending money when you get short but if you ever need help with something or you are left in a crisis then they are usually willing to help. For example, there will be a lot of paperwork when you first arrive in your host country and you will need a bank account and maybe a new phone contract, they should be able to help you with anything like this. My teacher has also said that whenever I’m bored or lonely that I can spend time with her and her family at their house. This hardly happens because I’m always so busy but it’s nice to know that their support is there if I need it. If I ever need to borrow anything that isn’t provided in my accommodation they can usually lend me whatever I need too which saves me having to buy things unnecessarily.
  • Working for the British Council is ideal for someone who wants to go into teaching later on in life. It helps you to find the confidence to stand in front of a class and give a lesson and also to discipline your students too. You’ll gain lots of experience in dealing with students and teachers, how to prepare for lessons and a taste of what is to come in general. However, choosing to be a language assistant on your Year Abroad is also a good option if you’re sat on the fence about teaching. It’s better to find out during your Year Abroad how you feel about teaching than once you’ve finished your degree and have started a career. It can also help you to decide what level you’d like to teach at.

Disadvantages

  • You cannot choose exactly where you are placed. I was able to choose three regions and put them in order of my preference. Mine were Lyon, Reims, Rennes. I was also able choose a preference between teaching in a city, town or rural area, my preference was town/rural area. I was placed in the region of Reims, not in the city itself but a small town about an hour’s drive away. It doesn’t bother me as I’m used to living in the countryside and I have my car here but it might bother somebody if they were expecting to work in a city and the British Council placed them in a village.
  • You’re expected to speak quite a bit of English. Yes, you’re going abroad to learn a foreign language but as a language assistant you’re also going there to teach your own language. If you’re teaching students who already have a fairly high level of English then you will be expected to only speak English with them during your 12 hours of teaching time. This means that you really need to push yourself to speak the language of your host country. Join clubs, meet new people who only speak the language you’re studying, travel etc. It will be difficult at times, especially at the start and there will no doubt be days when you can’t bear to think, let alone speak, in any language other than your mother tongue. The more you push yourself to speak in the foreign language the easier it will get.
  • The British Council only ask you to work from the beginning of October until the end of April which is only 7 months. This means that even if you go abroad at the beginning of September and don’t return home until the following August, you cannot get the full amount of Erasmus grant, only 7 months’ worth. This still applies even if you find other work from the end of April. However the wages probably make up for this.

All the options for your Year Abroad will have different advantages and disadvantages; it’s just a case of choosing which are best suited to you. Whatever you choose, you’ll have a blast!

2. University

Eve Halliwell- Bordeaux

Advantages

  • Meeting people. Studying in any university means that you will be surrounded by hundreds of people the same age as you and who are in the same boat as you. After making plenty of Erasmus friends on the open day, you are able to: work through the pain of university administration together; find out about the upcoming Erasmus nights out; know which subjects to avoid and catch up on any important deadlines that you missed in the incredibly boring welcome speech. I can’t stress enough how much of an advantage this is for studying. After speaking with friends who chose British Council or a work placement, they have found it more difficult to find people of similar ages and with similar interests.
  • Improving French language. If you choose the translation classes (strongly advised) you will feel like you are back at MMU translating weird and wonderful texts. It is a perfect way to keep at/improve your French grammar in preparation for final year exams.
  • You are able to choose your own timetable to suit you best. For many, this means having Mondays/ Fridays off leaving you more time to travel at weekends (or catch up on work that you conveniently forget to do over the weekends). However, there’s more to this than meets the eye… see below in disadvantages.
  • You don’t have to pass. Hopefully the teachers won’t be reading this bit… MMU asks of you to show full engagement, try your best and take part in all assessments and exams. However, it is not the end of the world if you do not pass. This means that you can take up pretty much any subject you fancy but not sure how good you are at it. For example, in Bordeaux, they hold evening language classes (the free ones) for all languages of all levels. So if you have ever fancied learning something as unusual as Korean, go for it!

Disadvantages

  • French administration AKA Hell. Be prepared for no help when it comes to administration/ choosing subjects/adding up credits/constructing your timetable. It is an absolute nightmare and the help sessions are ran by students in the year above who likewise, haven’t been told a thing. This is where mingling as much as humanly possible with other Erasmus students will come in very handy as you cry your way together through 2 weeks of stress and madness.
  • Yes, you still have to take all exams and attend all / as many lessons as possible. (If you don’t, you will be shooting yourself when it comes to a speaking exam about a subject you have never studied before, trust me). Some teachers are very kind to Erasmus students, however, some just aren’t so choose your subjects wisely.
  • Mingling with the French. I personally have found it much harder to mingle with the French students, they’re not exactly warm and welcoming to Erasmus students which can steer you to staying with English Erasmus students. (Great for a bit, but then annoying when you remember that you’re there to learn French not make more English friends.) Despite my experience, it varies between people, subject and universities as a lot of my friends have plenty of French friends who are more than happy to help you and mingle with you (as a lot love the fact you’re English.)
  • Lack of money. Despite getting the Erasmus grant, cities here can be very expensive, especially if you like going out regularly (best way to mingle). Obviously this is one of the main differences between working and studying; you don’t get a salary so you must rely on Lidl, pre-drinking on wine and the bank of mum and dad (like you do anything different in Manchester anyway right?)

Obviously your decision is completely personal and it totally depends on what you want from your Year Abroad. If you’re looking for a home from home like experience, with very few responsibilities, studying in France is your best bet. Whatever you decide, it will be the best year of your life, that is one thing everyone will agree on.

Abigail Hartnell- Perpignan

Advantages

  • It’s very easy to make friends. Nobody knows anyone at first and there are loads of people who are doing exactly the same thing as you. The Erasmus community is also AMAZING, especially if you’re at a small university like Perpignan where all the Erasmus students know each other. So there’s always something going on at evenings and weekends. Your list of international friends will grow and grow.
  • Your listening skills in French will come on so much. It’s pretty satisfying when you can think in French and understand it without having to translate in your head- even more satisfying when you get a lecturer’s joke!
  • Free French Erasmus class. Good for brushing up on your problems with grammar, pronunciation etc.
  • Uni as an Erasmus isn’t anything like the pressure of the work load in Second Year. You don’t actually have to pass your classes you take at uni, you just need to attend the classes and prove that you engage with the university. Teachers are usually very sympathetic towards the Erasmus students, and will be more lenient with marking etc.

Although I found from personal experience it is quite hard to get contact with native French students, be brave and speak to them! They probably aren’t speaking to you because they think you don’t speak very good French…prove them wrong! I found this method worked pretty well and set up a weekly language exchange with a French girl I’m finding my speaking is already improving.

Disadvantages

  • Be careful not to speak English the majority of the time! Most of the other Erasmus students will want to speak to you in English to practice their English. Which might seem really lovely, but can be frustrating. It can be avoided, remember everyone is studying in France because they can speak French.
  • The French education system is extremely different to the one in the UK. It’s not interactive in the slightest; a lecture usually consists of the teacher talking for 2 hours straight, occasionally writing the odd word on the chalkboard whilst French students sit and write every word the lecturer says. My advice would be to pick classes that are TD’s (seminar) rather than CM’s (lecture) this way you will find a teaching style similar to what you’re used to at MMU.
  • Bureaucracy and organisation is a little bit of a nightmare, but I’ve just discovered that it’s just the French way of doing things!

All in all, I’m glad I’m doing Erasmus, due to the fact it’s a good option if you’re the type of person who doesn’t enjoy their own company that much. There’s always something going on and it’s not too hard to meet French people if you really make an effort!

3. Work Placement

Rhiannon Copeland

 Advantages

  • It’s brilliant for your French. Choosing to work means you’re less likely to encounter British Erasmus students and fall into the trap of sticking with them the entire year. You’re obliged to speak and listen to French all day, nearly every day. Although this can be mentally draining at first, you’ll thank yourself come Fourth Year. Can’t stress enough how beneficial it is for your comprehension.
  • You’ll be earning. This will vary from job to job, but every little helps right! A wage plus Student Finance plus Erasmus grant means you’ll almost forget your former cheap-skate self, when anywhere pricier than Aldi was a fortune.
  • Future employers will be impressed. If you can put on your CV than you worked abroad for a year, then you will more than stand out. These days, experience is everything and so you’ll have an advantage over your peers when applying for graduate jobs. The independence, confidence and professional skills you’ll acquire while on a work placement will be an incredible asset.

Disadvantages

  • The struggle of finding work in the first place. I spent hours and hours searching for placements to which I could actually apply. Many advertised placements were with business or sales companies and so you had to be doing a business related degree and unfortunately for me, I am not (but this could be great for anyone doing joint honours with business.) For other, more prestigious openings, you had to have already graduated or even be doing a Master’s degree. My advice would be to apply to placements on the “Jobs for Languages Linguistics TESOL students and graduates of MMU” Facebook page as they are more likely to be relevant. Or ask current/ previous Year Abroad students if they know of any good companies to which you could apply. If it is still proving difficult then I wouldn’t be afraid to approach companies directly even if they haven’t advertised any openings. Send them an email or even ring up, this will show you’re proactive and confident. There’s no harm in trying, in fact you’d even be practising your professional French …
  • It’s going to be harder to make friends your own age than if you go to university. This just means you have to put yourself out there! It’s clichéd, but you need to break out of your comfort zone. I joined a ballet class and pushed myself to talk to people there. Seems daunting at first but in general people are really interested in where you come from, what you have to say and want to continue the conversation. Another option is to join a “TAPIF” Facebook page in your region, which is technically is for language assistants, but it’s a great way nonetheless for meeting young people from all over the world in your area.
  • You’re not likely to have as much holiday time as someone studying or working for the British Council. Of course it depends on the job, I got 20 days on top of national holidays which is still pretty good. And despite not having half terms or long Christmas and Easter holidays, France’s abundance of jours fériés means that you’re not exactly slaving away.

Choosing to go on a work placement is certainly a brave option. You’re not guided along the way as with university and British Council. But the rewards that it reaps means that it’s certainly worth the struggle. The experience you’ll gain is so valuable and it will do wonders for your French-which is, after all, what you’re there for!

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