The 10 Types of Language Assistants in Spain

From 2012 to 2015 I worked and lived in Spain as an auxiliar de conversación, or a language assistant in public school classes taught in English. I wasn’t the only American in Spain, though; over 2,000 people from the States move across the Pond every year to do the very same thing. I interacted with countless fellow auxiliares over these three years, many of whom became housemates, good friends, and travel partners.

In this post, I’ll talk about the ten general categories I think 95% of all language assistants fit into, and to show I don’t take myself too seriously, I’ll show how I think I each type applies to me (if applicable, of course).

1) The gap year

The type: This person is having some fun after college to travel, speak Spanish, and broaden their world before they return to the Real World™ and land a full-time job, get married, buy a house, and have 2.5 kids. They essentially need to get things out of their system before settling down.

Me: I always wanted to travel around Europe on a Great Tour and see all the historic cities and sights, but I knew as an adult I would never have the vacation time or funds to be flying across the Atlantic every year for only 1- or 2-week stretches at a time. Backpacking on a budget from a European home base it was!

2) The study abroad re-run

The type: This person studied abroad for a semester in Granada, Salamanca, or Santiago de Compostela, and had such a memorable and meaningful time that they knew they had to come back—but for how long and what for is always unclear. They usually return to Spain in hopes of reliving their study abroad glory days, but their experience as older, maturer adults having to go to work in a foreign country often turns out very different than they expected.

Me: I studied abroad for a month in Costa Rica and found the intense Spanish practice, fast friendships over shared experiences, and travel every weekend very memorable…and I wanted more. I didn’t end up speaking Spanish or traveling nearly as often in Spain as I did in Costa Rica, but my month-long stay in the land of Pura Vida definitely gave me the confidence to pack my whole life into a suitcase and move overseas for three years.

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3) The quarter-life crisis

The type: This person is most likely either a liberal arts major without a clearly-defined career path or a STEM major delaying the inevitable (i.e., grad school) and/or trying to pivot to something else.

Me: Of all these types I identify with this one the most, as I was a history and Spanish major who also minored in Christian Studies and English/Writing; i.e., about as liberal arts as you could possibly get. I didn’t want to go into teaching. I didn’t have many marketable, transferable skills apart from writing, research, and public speaking. And my honors thesis project on the relationship between historical linguistics and the Old Testament had basically led me into a crisis of faith. So I really felt like a ship without a captain after graduation…and moving to Spain seemed like an escape hatch.

4) The weekend traveler

The type: This person never stays in the city they have an apartment in on the weekend because literally every week they are jet-setting around from one European capital to the next in a desperate attempt to check every EU member nation off their list. They use the auxiliar experience as a means to their end of backpacking across Europe. They become well-traveled, indeed, but poorly-acquainted with what makes their host city unique. They either come to Spain with a healthy savings account or their parents pay their way.

Me: I did my fair share of traveling as an auxiliar, going on one major weekend trip to another city in Spain per month (usually aligned with national holidays) and major international trips to neighboring countries during Christmas and Easter breaks. And if I could manage it, there was a daytrip every couple of weeks to a small town or provincial capital in Galicia. But I did my best to exhaustively explore the towns I lived in, becoming a regular at my favorite cafés, bars, and restaurants, and wandering through nearly every church, park, and museum in Santiago.

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5) The Spanish major

The type: This person studied Spanish in college; so, because they had been exposed to all the great Spanish works of art, historic cities, tasty dishes, and varied landscapes in courses they took, they were inspired to visit Spain and experience in person everything they had learned in their textbooks. Plus, they were that person in the States affecting a Castilian accent.

Me: This may come as a shock to almost everybody, but Spain was really never on my radar; Latin America had always been the major draw for me to learn Spanish, from the heavy Mexican immigrant presence in Texas and volunteer trips to Puerto Rico and Honduras, to studying abroad in Costa Rica and weighing my options for teaching English in Chile. But I ended up having to take a course on the culture and civilization of Spain in college, and I got word of this thing called the Camino de Santiago, and I was hooked. The long-lost legacy of the Moors in places like Córdoba was especially intriguing, and the siren song of the Camino was too difficult to ignore.

6) The actual teacher

The type: Unlike most auxiliares, this person actually studied education in college and has real experience in the classroom. They come prepared with skills like classroom management and pedagogic strategies, so they really know what they are doing. Often they take over whichever English class they are assigned to from the formal teacher and plan and teach the whole lesson.

Me: Not me by a long shot. If anything, this experience showed me I am not cut out to be a teacher!

7) The hunting-for-a-husband

The type: This person may have been a serial monogamist back home or newly-single as a result of their moving so far away for such a long amount of time. They are looking for a relationship and it doesn’t matter the nationality of their love interest. After all, getting married (or at least, a civil union) is the easiest way for Americans to stay and work in Spain long term.

Me: I specifically did not date in Spain because I was not mentally prepared to live there forever (potentially only teaching English) if that’s what a serious relationship would lead to.

8) The partier

The type: This person would go out to bars or clubs in any country, but because drinks are so cheap in Spain and because the work schedule of an auxiliar is so light, they can conceivably go out up to three or four times a week.

Me: I would often go out for tapas with friends and maybe a drink or two afterward once, maybe twice, on the weekend, but because I’m an old man, I would always turn in around 1 or 2am, which sounds late but folks typically stay out until 5 or 6am in Spain, and I need my beauty sleep!

9) The hobbyist in free time

The type: The auxiliar program is a killer gig in that you get paid a living wage with health insurance but you only have to work 12 hours a week as a teaching assistant. Of course, most people pick up private English classes on the side to supplement their income and pay for trips or student loans, but you generally have a ton of free time outside of work to do whatever the hell you want. Many folks choose to take advantage of this to do anything from picking up another language to knitting, freelancing, working out, or brewing kombucha.

Me: I definitely made the most of my time off in Spain, as this blog makes clear. I honed my skills in photography, photo editing, writing, and social media—all marketable skills that helped me land the job I have right now. But because I was living on my own for the first time in Spain, I also had to teach myself from scratch how to cook. I’m grateful for the luxury of free time I had to experiment and learn the ropes without the time-crunch of a typical 9-5 job, as today I feel confident in the kitchen while batch-cooking for the week on Sundays.

10) The mid-career break

The type: Every now and then I’ll get an email from a reader asking me if there are any folks over 30 who do this program, and I’m happy to announce they do exist! I ran into quite a few people in Spain that came not right after graduating from college, but instead after having built up a career for themselves. Back home, I often run into people who wish they would have traveled the world right after finishing college but instead had a job lined up for the day after they graduated. Let me tell you—it can be done!

Me: Not me as I was in my early twenties as an auxiliar.

If you were a language assistant in Spain, which type(s) do you identify with the most? Would you add any to this list? Tell me below in the comments!

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