Language assistants, then and now
In 2005, the British Council published a booklet celebrating 100 years of the Language Assistants Programme.
On the front page of this booklet is a picture of my great-grandmother, Eileen Coleman. She was one of the first language assistants, in France in 1934. I was very interested to read about her experience which was totally different from mine.
Firstly, she was not paid. She simply received food and lodgings in exchange for her work as a language assistant. She describes her basic room in an old convent (it was built in the 1700s!). She also mentions the boring food she was given and the small portions. She had a washbasin that she could use but she never found a shower anywhere over the whole year. Her accommodation was by a river and sometimes her building flooded. Also, there was no electricity, just a socket for the light bulb. Her family sometimes sent her some money; she spent most of this on postage stamps to send letters home and occasionally on treats to eat such as mandarin oranges. After her placement in France, she returned home and taught French in Leeds. However, she had to leave her job when she got married, as married women were not allowed to teach in those days!
My experience, however, has been very different. Today, language assistants generally find their own accommodation and are more independent. Of course we have showers and electricity as well. On my placement abroad in Santiago, Chile, I have many luxuries that no one had in the 1930s; I can buy any food I want, I can travel, and participate in a range of activities. However, I have sometimes experienced power cuts and water shortages here . It is frustrating to be without power or water for even a few hours, so it is hard to imagine what it was like in the past when these things were luxuries! We take these things for granted in the 21st century.
However, something that all the assistants have had in common over the last 100 years is the experience of what it is to live and work in a different country. It is an invaluable opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture and language of a faraway place, and everyone's experience is special and unique.