I remember looking around Aston University on an open day, hearing about the compulsory Third Year Abroad and being terrified at the idea of spending up to a whole year in a foreign country. Yet before I knew it, as I was squeezing piles of clothes into a suitcase far too small, this prospect had become very real.
The Year Abroad experience begins early in second year, almost a whole year before actually beginning it. The fact that there are several options of how to spend a Year Abroad means that you really can build a Year Abroad around you – I was given the option of studying at a university, working for a German company or teaching English in a German school. After a little research I opted for the latter – I wanted to ‘test the water’ in terms of teaching and see if it was something I would like to do as a career and coupled with, not only the pay, but also the hours worked, this seemed the best option for me. Next up was to select where I would like to be placed. I chose my preferred three ‘Bundesländer’ and I was fortunate to receive my first choice – Bavaria.
Following completion of second year, things started to feel very real. With only a few months before I literally moved country for nine months, I was feeling apprehensive. Over the summer I began searching for accommodation whilst also keeping in close contact with the schools I was to work at. My Year Abroad began early in September 2013 and safe to say, I was very nervous as I left England knowing I wouldn’t be returning until Christmas. My immediate impressions of Germany were very positive. Despite being initially overwhelmed by the language, and my lack of ability in speaking it, the culture is very similar to England and the people were, in total contrast to the largely upheld stereotype, really quite friendly.
Within a few months I felt I was beginning to find my feet in this new country and I was enjoying my work in the school(s!). As a native English speaker, I proved to be pretty popular with teachers and students alike and this made me feel very welcome. I was very surprised at just how high the standard of English is in Germany, considering it’s learnt as a second language. Many young students had better second language skills than I did! One great thing about my role as a British Council English Teaching Assistant was the amount of free time I got. I was able to use this time well and spent almost every weekend visiting somewhere new, whether that be a German city or a neighbouring country. I began to appreciate just how many amazing places and attractions Germany has to offer, whilst also really enjoying constantly improving my knowledge of German culture, history and lifestyle. Christmas time brought with it the opportunity to sample ‘real’ German Christmas markets for the first time, and this was just one particular highlight for me.
As I returned to Germany following the Christmas break, I felt easier knowing where I was going and what to expect. The second half of my Year Abroad just flew by, but once again, I feel I really made the most of it. Although I spoke a lot of English during my Year Abroad (which could be perhaps considered a disadvantage of the role of a Teaching Assistant), in the final few months before coming home, I really began to notice an improvement in my German language. In any European country, because of the high standard of English, for native English speakers it becomes fairly easy to get by without speaking a word of that countrys’ language. I really had to make an effort to ensure I did indeed speak German at every available opportunity but also found that simple things like reading newspapers and listening to radio, activities which require a little more effort back home in England, were good ways of practising.
At the end of the Year Abroad, without sounding too clichéd, I really did feel I was returning to the UK, a different person. A more mature, grown up, wiser person. Whilst the Year Abroad isn’t always easy, isn’t always fun (in fact at times it can be very lonely and challenging), it offers something that can’t be matched. From my Year Abroad, I’ve learnt that there is a lot more to teaching than meets the eye and it’s unlikely that I will be becoming a teacher anytime soon, but I’ve also learnt so much about people and cultures – And perhaps most reassuringly, my love for Germany has grown.
The Third Year Abroad is something that Aston prides itself upon, especially in the language department. Yet it is only after doing a Year Abroad, having these wonderful experiences, developing and learning the way I have done, that I understand why the Year Abroad receives so much focus and emphasis. I’ve learnt that it is a vital part of a degree, and not just for language students. Obviously the development of language skills is a massive part of the Year Abroad for a language student and it is common knowledge that the best way to learn a language is to spend time in a country that speaks it as you are constantly surrounded by it and immersed in the culture of the language. But the independence, the confidence, the personal development and new skills that one learns through spending time abroad cannot be underestimated. Not only that, but the Year Abroad offers the chance to appreciate not only another culture, but equally, your own culture, in a way that is impossible without spending time surrounded by another.