By: Lauren Porter
March is National Foreign Language Month. This is a time to discuss the joys of learning a new language and to bring awareness to the importance of studying foreign languages. In my own journey of learning a second language, I decided to dive headfirst into the process and move abroad to learn it. At the same time, I’ve had the honor of helping elementary and high school students in their journey of learning English as a foreign language. I’ve lived in Spain through the North American Language and Cultural Assistants program since the fall of 2020. A lot of people have asked me where do you even begin when you want to consider moving abroad, and if it's possible for someone like them. I’ve been happy to share my experience and ways that you can do it.
The hardest part for me was deciding to make a decision that felt so scary and out of reach. How could I possibly just leave my life in the USA and go abroad? Where do you begin? How do you get a job? How do you get a bank account? What's life like? It would've been far too easy to just carry on and ignore the dream to go abroad. It took me a while to really embrace what I wanted, and one day, I decided I was going to make it happen.
I went to school for social work and have never had much interest in teaching. After graduating, I regretted not studying abroad and wanted a gap year before graduate school. A classmate of mine had just gone to Costa Rica to teach English. I was intrigued at this option because I could not figure out how to finance my travels. I had explored international internships and volunteering, as well as academic programs, but the logistics and finances were not working out in the way I needed them to. I reached out to this classmate about her process, and she referred me to the company that she became a certified EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher with. I had a few meetings with the advisors in the company, researched their program and resources, and decided to go for it.
Being an EFL teacher has many advantages. This allows for a work/residency visa and income while you are abroad. Native English teachers are in high demand. In fact, over 2 billion people around the globe are learning English, and countries are eager to have native speakers come and teach it. There are over 100,000 jobs in the EFL market! There's even options for people with little to no education background.
While some countries require a degree in education, many just require a general undergraduate degree. It can be helpful to have a TEFL or CELTA certification, and this may be required by some schools. I enrolled in a TEFL certification through International TEFL Academy, where I was also given access to career advisors, webinars, and networking groups. They offer a helpful side-by-side comparison chart where you can look at all the different countries, salary averages, cost of living, contract lengths, and more.
It’s helpful to decide a continent or a few countries that you are interested in traveling to, and then research what their requirements are. For example, the United Arab Emirates is quite competitive and typically requires a master’s degree in education as well as a TEFL/CELTA certification. While other programs, such as Spain’s NALCAP program, are great for individuals with little to no experience who are just getting started. (The Spain NALCAP program application is open until early April. Check it out if you want to consider joining our crowd of language assistants for 2022-23.)
You will also need to consider your desired or needed income. Countries like South Korea may pay $2500/month plus housing, but the workload is far more intense than assist programs in western Europe. For me, I chose a program that had part-time hours and long weekends so that I could travel around while I was living here. To save costs, I live with other English teachers and regularly get tips on budget travel. I also teach English online in the evenings to supplement my income.
There are many TEFL certification programs, both in-person and online, and a variety of ways to assess what is best for you. I recommend finding out if the countries you are interested in require a TEFL first. While my program did not require it, I did not have a degree in education and so I found the 12-week intensive course to be really helpful in understanding the basics of foreign language instruction. When picking a company, it is crucial to find one that provides job guidance and resources. Many people who want to travel abroad don’t have an exact idea of where they want to go. Through career guidance and networking, you can figure out your options and narrow them down.
How long does this all take? The timeline is varied. For me, I finished my TEFL course in April, and I was on a plane to Spain in September. An average of 3-6 months is minimum depending on when you are starting. You will research different countries’ peak hiring times. Some countries you will secure a job before arriving, and in others you will interview in person after you get there. Visas can take a bit of time to get and will vary based on country.
Some people chose to go abroad for a year or a couple of years, and then move back home and resume their career. Others make a career out of traveling and EFL. There's more and more options as you gain experience on the field and through networking.
An invaluable resource is joining groups on social media for TEFL teachers in different countries. There are thousands and thousands of us around the world who have all been through the same process. They can help you with everything from how you get a visa, how you even go about uprooting your life and moving abroad, what countries are easiest for new travelers, where you will have the most job opportunities, and more.
Another way of traveling abroad through TEFL is teaching online and living as a digital nomad. This means contracting with companies or private students and teaching online while traveling to different countries.
The number one piece of advice that I have is start the process even if it’s scary and you don’t have all the answers. I decided I wanted to go abroad, and I took the leap. It’s not always easy, and in fact, some days I wonder if I made the right decision. Ultimately, I’m so happy for this opportunity. There are a lot of ways to go abroad, including work visas, au pairing, work exchanges, internships, and study abroad, but TEFL is a very common, in-demand, and feasible option for most people. Here’s a helpful article outlining more about the process of moving abroad to teach English.
The mantra that got me here was, “You are only ever one decision away from a radically different life.” Whatever that one decision could be for you, I hope you consider making it.