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The pros and cons of being an English language assistant in Spain

Every year thousands of non-EU English speakers get to live and work in Spain by becoming language assistants in Spanish schools. There are however pros and cons to the scheme; here's what those who’ve worked as ‘auxes’ think you should know before applying.

The pros and cons of being an English language assistant in Spain
'Auxes' in Spain are generally not badly paid for the hours they work. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

The idea behind ‘auxiliares de conversación’ is that they help Spanish school students to improve their speaking and listening skills – something aided by regular interaction with native speakers – and also teach the kids about aspects of their culture, language, history, humour, music, sport and customs.

Auxes, as they are known among the Americans (and language assistants by the British) are paid a monthly stipend in return for assisting English lessons for twelve or sixteen hours a week across Spain and Europe. 

Often these are recent graduates or modern languages students studying as part of their year abroad, and the scheme attracts teachers from the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, and India.

Although the programme is a fantastic opportunity to live in a new country and immerse yourself in a new culture and language, there are some pitfalls to the programme and things worth bearing in mind when it comes to applying, particularly so after Brexit.

The Local spoke to several auxes and got the lowdown on the pros and cons of the programme:

The Pros

A way into Spain for non-EU applicants

Unless you have a lot of money, you get married to a resident or can find a job in Spain that no EU candidate can do, the chances of you being able to move to Spain as a third-country national are pretty slim. 

One of the easiest ways to get your foot in the door is through this language assistant scheme, which in most cases requires applying for Spain’s long-term student visa. 

This visa has quite a few advantages, such as being able to bring some family members with you, no age limit for applicants, being able to study at university in Spain and being allowed to work up to 20 hours per week. 

Auxes are usually contracted from October to May, but there are ways for them to extend their stay in Spain.

READ ALSO: The pros and cons of Spain’s student visa

No Spanish language requirements, the chance to learn a new language

Spain is one of the few countries that don’t require auxes to have any local language skills when arriving. Although that may present some difficulties when arriving and getting yourself set up (more on that later in the cons section) living in Spain and interacting with native speakers everyday is a priceless opportunity to learn a second language.

Many auxes choose to take Spanish lessons or make use of ‘intercambios de idiomas’ (language exchanges) to practice their Spanish with native speakers and help others improve their English.

You don’t work many hours

Although the salary isn’t the best (see below) most auxes can’t complain as they work so few hours. It varies by region but most language assistantsare contracted to work 12 or 16 hours a week (yes, you read that right) over 3 or 4 days a week.

Most staff at schools are quite understanding, and if you get yourself a good coordinator they are normally quite flexible about taking time off or rearranging classes to allow you to travel and take full advantage of your time in Spain.

It’s paid

Despite working so little, auxes are paid. It’s not the best money in the world and, like with the hours, depends on where in Spain you’re sent, but most are paid between €700 and €1,000 a month. Actually getting that beca (grant), however, can present problems as explained in the cons section.

But all things considered you should remember auxes are paid enough to pay rent and cover most daily costs for very few hours work. Not a bad deal for students and recent graduates, but it’s also very common to top-up pay with private tutoring or work in English academies.

Combining study and work is possible

Many British auxes use the language assistant scheme as part of a study abroad for languages students.

Usually during their third year, they often have to do some (but not much) work for their universities, and often programme coordinators are quite good at allowing you the time to do it.

Daily interaction with native speakers not only boosts your language skills and adds something different to your CV, but for those auxes wanting to become teachers it’s also fantastic experience in the classroom. Whether or not they still want to be teachers by the end of the school year depends on the person – and the kids they’re teaching!

The scheme is a great way for third-country nationals to get to live in the country,but it’s not all advantages. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

The Cons

Like everything in life, even the aux programme has its drawbacks. Most of them are age-old problems common to Spanish society, and many auxes experience them.

You can’t choose where you go

Unfortunately, you can’t choose where exactly you’ll be. You can choose a region and put preferences with regards to whether you’d prefer a city, town, or village, be inland or on the coast, working in a primary or high school, but ultimately go where the regional govt decides they need you.

This means that many auxes are given teaching posts in small towns, and their dreams of living and working in central Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Seville never materialise. 

Commuting isn’t always easy

As you could be placed in a school in a small town in the middle of nowhere, it is worth considering whether you’d want to live in the town itself or in a nearby city and commute. Many auxes do the latter, but if you decide to do that you will be reliant on lifts from colleagues and the unpredictability of public transport in rural Spain.

Those who do end up buying or renting a car should consider how long they’re allowed to drive in Spain with their foreign licences. 

Driving in Spain: Who can exchange their licence and who has to resit the exam?

Payment problems

Many auxes biggest complaint. The many quirks of Spanish administration mean several regions are notorious for paying auxes months late – often not until December – so it’s better to arrive with some savings. Valencia is the worst region for this, and in recent years auxes have been forced to protest outside government buildings to get their pay. 

It’s worth doing some research online before applying, especially if you don’t have access to savings or family support before arriving. Those first few months can be tough, and it often depends if you’re paid directly by the school (like in Andalusia) or as a group by the regional government (like in Valencia and Murcia) so make sure to check when applying.

Spanish admin 

Spanish administration in general can be a shock to the system for many arriving from the U.S, U.K, Australia, or Canada. Sorting out things like your NIE and opening a bank account can be overly-complicated and take a long time. This is compounded if you don’t speak the language, and you’ll soon get used to waiting around at the ayuntamiento. 

READ MORE: 15 terms you need to know to understand Spanish bureaucracy

Sticking to the expat groups

Although many auxes take advantage of their time in Spain to learn the language and integrate into their town, it’s not uncommon for younger auxes to stick together in groups and spend all their time with one another speaking in English. If that’s how you want to spend your time – great.

If not, consider requesting a smaller town placement that will allow you to properly immerse yourself in Spanish culture.

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Spain is the second favourite country for Americans to move to

A study based on Google searches reveals that Spain is the second most popular destination of choice for US nationals looking to move overseas, and it’s the favourite in two states in particular.

Spain is the second favourite country for Americans to move to

Spain is the second-most visited country in the world just behind France, with a record 83.7 million international tourists visiting España in 2019. It is also among the EU countries with the biggest foreign resident populations, numbering around 6 million

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the country’s many attractions, from the weather and culture to the quality of life, have also proven a big draw for Americans.

According to a study by American insurance company Home Shield based on Google searches, Spain is the second most popular country for US nationals to move to.

The first is Canada, which is most likely due to the fact it’s next to the US and it shares the same language and has a similar culture.

“People in 31 cities, mostly in Texas and California, are currently looking for information on how to move to Spain,” American Home Shield revealed.

People in Tulsa, Tampa, Stockton, Santa Ana, San Jose, San Francisco, San Antonio, Riverside, Plano, Phoenix, Orlando, Oakland, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Laredo, Long Beach, Houston, Glendale, Fresno, Fort Worth, El Paso, Dallas, Corpus Christi, Chula Vista, Bakersfield, Austin, Arlington and Anaheim put in more Google searches for “moving to Spain” than for any other country. 

Texas and California along with Florida are among the US states where you’ll find the most Spanish speakers, so it’s perhaps understandable that people from there would want to look for a country where they can already speak the language.  But Spain was also the most searched relocation country in Georgia, Arkansas, New Hampshire and North Dakota.

Many Americans have already made the move over here and Spain is the European country with the most US residents.

READ ALSO: Six hard facts Americans should be aware of before moving to Spain 

Spain saw a 13 percent increase in the number of US citizens moving to Spain between 2019 and 2021. The latest data available from Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE) shows there are a total of 39,812 US nationals living in Spain.  

The current strong dollar against the euro could also be influencing why Spain is so high on the list, as evidenced by the spike in US tourists who came to Spain this summer. In June alone, more than 377,000 visited Spain, an 86.9 percent rise compared to the same month in 2019, a pre-pandemic year.

It’s not just Americans who want to move to Spain, however. According to a study by comparison site Compare the Market, Spain is the third most popular country in the world for people to move to.

For citizens from 12 different countries, including Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, Spain is their top choice when it comes to deciding where to move to. 

Where do Americans choose to live in Spain?

Unlike most Europeans who favour the coast when they move to Spain, Americans prefer the inland capital region of Madrid.

According to the latest data from the INE as of 2021 there were a total of 11,717 Americans living in the region of Madrid. This was followed by Catalonia with 8,802 US citizens and then Andalusia with 6,658.

READ ALSO: What Americans moving to Spain wish they’d brought with them

How can Americans move to Spain?

Given the high unemployment levels, employment rules and great difficulties in getting some US professional qualifications recognised in Spain, getting a work visa for Spain isn’t easy, so most Americans opt for a different way.

There are several ways for Americans to be able to move to Spain, but one of the most popular and easiest is the non-lucrative visa (NLV). In order to be eligible, Americans need to prove they have a total of €27,792 ($31,390) for one year, an amount which rises if you include other family members. You also need to show that this money is from passive income, as you’re not allowed to work in Spain while on the NLV either for a Spanish employer or a US one.

Another way is the golden visa, which grants you residency in Spain if you invest €500,000 in property in Spain.

Spain recently announced the approval of its Startups Law which also includes a digital nomad visa which will be available from 2023. Find out more about it here