Q+A: My Experience as a Language Assistant

I was recently asked by fellow Spain blogger Corbett Walsh to write about my experience with the North American Language and Culture Assistants (NALCA) program. He is compiling a great list of testimonials for English teaching programs in Spain, so I recommend checking out his site for more opinions if you’re thinking of doing something similar in the school years to come. I’ve decided to post my responses on my blog, too, since the questions he asked provide a great summary of my experience with the program!


First days exploring Bilbao.

1. Why did you choose the NALCA program? I studied abroad in Granada, Spain, and wanted the chance to return and work in a different part of the country, both to delay real life and to solidify my Spanish. NALCA offered the most options in terms of regional placements—I really wanted Basque Country, as I fell in love with the north when I passed through during my year in Granada. Also the pay is really good for the amount of hours you work. I was actually offered a position in the center of Madrid with BEDA (a similiar program), but my heart was set on Bilbao.

2. What has been the best part about your experience? This may sound highly unrelated to NALCA, but what I’ve enjoyed most about being an expat in Spain is. . . . writing about it! How selfish, loving the sound of my own voice! But writing and blogging has been such a fun and therapeutic way to process my experience here, and I hope to help future language assistants the same way that so many previous bloggers helped me ease into this job. At times working in a foreign country can be a bit lonely, like you’re caught in limbo between your home country and your adopted one, and blogging has been a way for me to connect to others, hear about similar experiences, and, of course, share the many ups and downs of living abroad!

3. Where — if anywhere — does the program have room to improve? The program could use the Language Assistants more effectively. My school is pretty good about having me do conversational activities with half the class at a time, but I’ve heard sometimes the Auxiliar just sits around while the main teacher is lecturing, and occasionally offers tidbits on improving pronunciation or explaining a word. But overall, I think the whole English education system in Spain needs a big shakeup. (Not just in Spain . . . foreign language teaching in the U.S. could use an overhaul too.) In my school I am the only native English teacher; all my friends are the only natives speakers in their schools as well. The language program is extremely by-the-book and taught to the test, and I almost NEVER see students taking notes when I introduce new vocabulary or expressions—so, of course, I ask them the meaning two seconds later, and not a single one can remember. Why can’t the whole world just adopt the Scandinavian system of learning languages? They speak better English than I do up there.

4. What’s your personal favorite thing to do in your city? I love hiking along the coast a bit north of Bilbao. There’s also great hikes I can do from my front door that lead into the hills surrounding Bilbao, where you get panoramic views of the city. I usually make a point to end my hikes in the historic district, where I go to the cutest homemade yogurt shop, “Casa del Yogur,” and get a froyo for one euro. (The only thing that’s cheap in Bilbao ☺ )


Hiking at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

5. What’s your favorite daily activity with the NALCA program? I don’t really have a “daily” activity—my schedule actually rotates every week, since there are 16 groups of students at my high school but I only work 12 hours a week. But I guess my favorite part would be being treated like a celebrity—it’s such an ego boost to have the students jumping out of their chairs to head to my class, complaining when it’s time for them to go back to their regular teacher, and getting shouts of “Good morning Jenny!” in the hallways.

6. What do you consider to be the hidden gems of your city? I’m not sure it’s very hidden, but the Alhóndiga in Bilbao is a massive wine cellar that the city converted into a gym/library/café/pool/movie theater/community center, and it is my haven, especially on cold winter days when we’re too cheap to turn on the heat in my apartment. The Bilbao Metro is also a spectacle—if you ever want to have a picnic on a rainy day, just head down into one of the stations. I’ve never done this, as it’s obviously a ridiculous idea, but the metro is so spotless that you could drop a pintxo de tortilla on the ground and still eat it with a clean conscious. BilboRock is a beautiful old church that was converted into a music venue, and I’ve seen a few concerts there—worth it for the setting alone, and many of the shows are free. My favorite café in the city, Kikarea, is relatively hidden—it’s on my street, actually, which is a bit out of the very center—and it is run by a Brit and her half-Basque daughter, so there is a full list of teas, along with scones, carrot cake, red velvet cupcakes, brownies, wraps, BLTs, and goat cheese salads—things you just don’t find at normal Spanish cafés, and the closest I’ve come to whipping out my laptop or a book while having a coffee. (Still haven’t, though working up the nerve—people here don’t sit around typing and sipping like they do at Starbucks in the States!)

7. What’s one thing you wish you knew prior to starting with NALCA? That students in Spain stay in the same classroom for the whole day, and the teachers switch in and out. My first two weeks I was so confused—I exasperatedly asked my teachers how the hell I was supposed to know which classroom the students were in at certain hours of the day. They were so nice, but probably thinking, “Great, we got stuck with the slow Auxiliar this year. . . .” Turns out, the rooms are clearly marked, “1B,” “2C,” according to their group and grade level, and they are always in the same room, so you really can’t mess it up.

8. What is your living arrangement, and how did you find it? I live in a shared apartment, with a guy from Argentina and a girl from the Canary Islands. I found the apartment on Basque Country’s main housing “craigslist,” alkila.net. I actually found it before coming to Spain, and agreed to it before seeing it in person—I had experience looking for rooms in Granada and wasn’t eager to repeat that stress while paying for an expensive hostel until I found a place in Bilbao. Of course, I didn’t sign any contract or put down any money—it was just a gentle(wo)man’s agreement, but it worked out well. I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you’ve never lived in a Spanish apartment, however, as it’s good to see a handful in person so you can get an idea of what you’re looking for. My number one criterion was to find a place without smokers, as I lived with them in Granada, and a 4-bedroom 2-bathroom ashtray is not a place I want to come home to.


My room in Bilbao.

9. Any regrets choosing NALCA over other programs? Nope! I think NALCA is great for what it is—a way to live in Spain, work (quarter-time), and participate in and contribute to a cultural exchange. Also, since my school treats me really well, understands the role of the Auxiliar, and pays me on time, I don’t have any of the typical complaints you might hear from other Auxiliars.

10. What do you miss most about home, besides friends and family? I don’t miss the typical things you hear from American expats—I think it’s great that they don’t have dryers here (save the planet!), I could live my whole life without ever owning a car (public transportation FTW), I don’t need the supermarket teller to bag my groceries for me, and peanut butter is so overrated (there, I said it.) But my God, bagels. Why haven’t they imported the recipe yet? And I miss going out at 9 p.m. instead of 2 a.m., as my aging and decrepit 23-year-old body can’t take the days-after anymore. I also find myself getting oddly nostalgic for my county—I live in the most beautiful county just north of San Francisco (millions of hiking trails, the Pacific ocean, lakes, rolling hills), and while Basque Country has a similar landscape, nothing beats the California coastline with views of the Golden Gate Bridge framed by the Marin Headland bluffs.


Hard to beat this.

11. Do you recommend any web sites for good deals on hostels, flights, bus tickets, train tickets, etc.? I recently discovered Skyscanner.net’s “any destination” option, where you put in the departure airport you want and it shows you the cheapest places to fly during those dates. How have I been traveling for seven years before discovering this? I plan on taking full advantage of it in the months to come, to make up for lost time. Also, luckily for everyone alive, Ryanair has revamped their website so you can use it without suffering a seizure or plotting the CEO’s murder.

12. What’s one common misconception about the NALCA program? That the pay is low. The pay is really good for what the job entails! 12 hours a week (honestly more like 10 in my school), about 6 weeks of paid vacation, health care, legal residency—all this and you’re not even expected to teach grammar, just ASSIST the classes, chat away in your native tongue, and maybe play a Beyonce or Adele song once in a while. The pay (outside of Madrid) works out to be about 14.50 euros an hour, which is almost as much as you’d make in private lessons (and even more than you could charge for private lessons in some regions!).

13. Any payment issues so far? Basque Country handles payment a bit differently—they do three-month installments, and Auxiliars are paid around the beginning of the second month (early November for Oct—Dec, etc.) Because of this, I can’t really say if it’s been late or not—I basically don’t know when the money SHOULD be coming! It also largely depends on when you initially sent in your bank account forms to the head office. If you want to be paid on the very early side, send those forms in as soon as you open your Spanish checking account!


In Algorta, a suburb of Bilbao. Photo cred: Kaitlin

14. About how much money do you think NALCA assistants need to make from private lessons in order to sufficiently supplement the monthly stipend? (Assuming assistants need to pay for round-trip trans-Atlantic airfare, etc.) In Basque Country, we actually get the worst end of the whole NALCA deal (money-wise)—San Sebastian (and Bilbao a close second) was recently declared the most expensive city in all of Spain, even edging out Madrid and Barcelona, and yet the language assistants in Madrid make 1,000 while we still make 700. That being said, you could STILL get by in Bilbao on just the NALCA salary—you would have to be very frugal, but you could do it. Realistically, to travel and refund your trans-Atlantic flight, you’d have to do between 5-10 hours of private lessons a week. I do 8.5 and have actually saved up quite a bit of money, even factoring in some trips. If you were placed in Galicia or Andalucía—two of the cheapest regions in all of Spain—I imagine you could live a life of semi-luxury just on the NALCA grant alone.

15. What’s your single best piece of advice for incoming Auxiliares de Conversación? Don’t expect it to be exactly like studying abroad in Spain. Studying abroad is pure bliss—everything is new, your “responsibilities” include not failing an easy course load, you are coddled with a support network and surrounded by joyous, doe-eyed comrades from your home university, and everyone is simultaneously fawning over the low cost of wine and the many cobblestone streets. Being a working expat is great in many respects, but remember, it’s just that: work. You pay bills and have to show up on time and go out of your comfort zone to make friends, because you don’t have 100 Spaniards and exchange students sitting next to you in a university lecture each day.

16. Do you ever see yourself settling down in Spain permanently? Ideally I would find a nice European chap here, fall in love, and be able to get a visa to be able to live in Europe permanently—but specifically Spain, I don’t think so. I’m grateful to this country for teaching me so much and being my gateway to my “new adult life,” but I feel more affinity with northern European countries. If only they had sunlight in winter . . . .

17. Do you have any plans for after your time with NALCA? I think doing NALCA was my way of running away from real plans. I honestly think it was more of a scary prospect to dress up for interviews, fill out a LinkedIn profile, and potentially live with my parents after graduation than it was for me to pack my life up and work half way around the world. So who knows how long I’ll keep at it! But I think in the future I’d like to get a job writing in some capacity, hopefully in San Francisco (just in time for average rent to hit $1500/room!).

18. What’s one thing you REALLY want to do before leaving Spain? Dream a full night’s sleep in Spanish and remember the events of said dream. I feel like that would be resume-worthy—“Look how fluent I am!” Also, maybe a longer stint at the Camino de Santiago (I did 5 days in July 2012, and absolutely loved it), but sometimes I shudder remembering those 40-bed hostel rooms full of snorers.


A gorgeous part of the Camino de Santiago.


Favorite quote: I’ll go with “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list” by Susan Sontag, since that’s the banner of my blog!

Favorite hobby: Blogging, of course! (Time to get a life.)

Favorite band/musician: Oh god, I dread this question when any of my students ask it. I wish I were more musically inclined, because it would be a whole lot easier to design fill-in-the-blank song lesson plans. I like a mix of hip-hop, rock, indie, and pop, but I have to say I’m not into Justin Bieber or One Direction, much to the disappointment of all my middle-school girls.

Favorite Spanish word: Hombre. You’d be amiss to think this just meant “man.” It’s like a little filler word that Spaniards insert everywhere, and I’ve even started dotting my English with it. It flavors a sentence in so many ways, and can mean (depending on the context): oh, hey, I mean, well, so, all right, come on, of course (and many more, I’m sure).

Favorite Spanish food: Bread. Ok, so bread isn’t technically a “Spanish” food, but it is my favorite food, and since they eat it with every meal here, I’m counting it. Also, I have to come out and say that I’m not a huge fan of Spanish cuisine gasp. But since there is a panadería on every corner here, I’m in no way suffering (although my thighs might be.)

For more information on the NALCA program, and the pros and cons of a similar program called BEDA, head to Corbett’s site. Also, check out my threepart series Think You Want to be an Auxiliar?