Looking for a way to stretch your budget on a trip to Europe? You could visit off-season, stay in low-budget accommodations and forgo fancy restaurants. Or you could spend a week living in uber-comfortable surroundings, while eating three gourmet meals every day. For free. Here’s how.
Traveling to Europe can be a pricey family vacation. But there’s a way to do it on the cheap.
The catch? You have to talk. Yes talk. Accompanied with an occasional role in a skit or pretend conference call. Participating in a short-term English immersion program gives the chance to take part in a cultural exchange resulting in new friends in Germany, Spain, Italy and points beyond.
My husband Allan and I have taken part in three of these programs. We taught English to Spaniards in the Pueblo Ingles program, along with two ventures with German-speaking students through the Englishhausen program.
Your first thought is probably, “But I don’t speak Spanish or German.” Great! The whole point of an English immersion program is for foreign students to speak only English. They are even instructed to speak English if they call home to their families.
So if you speak English and have a free week, these programs are for you.
Teaching English in Europe: How does the program work?
The concept is surprisingly simple. Groups of 15-24 “Anglos” from around the world, volunteer to “teach” English to 15-24 German or Spanish nationals, depending on where the program takes place.
Anglo volunteers receive free lodging and all meals. In many cases, employers pay for the program so their German- or Spanish- speaking employees have a better grasp of the English language. Then, for 5-8 days, (depending on the program) the two groups interact with one-on-one conversations, small group activities and mock phone calls. The result? Lots of laughs along with the students feeling confident in their grasp of the complicated English language. After all, they don’t teach phrases in European school such as, “I’ll sleep on it” or “I’m under the weather”.
Where are the programs taught?
The Englishhausen and Pueblo Ingles programs we participated in happened in rural areas, not major tourist websites. Each location has its own charm, from a hotel in Bavaria to the conference center two km from a castle.
Getting there is easy. The program staff picked us up at the closest major train station such as Munich, Frankfurt or Madrid, so there’s no problem trying to reach a small community.
We never missed the tourism sites since the program days are filled with structured activities. Many people get to their pickup point a few days early to explore on their own.
On our most recent trip, we arrived three days ahead of time in Frankfurt and took day trips. That made it easy to catch the bus at the Frankfurt train station and head off to begin the program in Laubach, Germany.
Those extra days helped us get over jet lag so we were rested when we met our “students.” In our last group, the bus returned us to Frankfurt, where we said goodbye to people heading off in all directions to extend their time in Europe.
Applying is easy.
Don’t worry. Applying to Englishhausen or Pueblo Ingles doesn’t require a high SAT score or a complicated essay. The on-line application is simple and direct. Organizers like to have a mix of Anglos with different nationalities and accents.
In our first Pueblo Ingles program, the volunteers were from England, Australia and Ireland along with the US. This gave the Spanish students a wide range of accents to try and understand. (Including one fast talking Texan with a twang that even I couldn’t understand!) So many of the Germans we met told us their teachers in school emphasized only grammar to them. I was meeting one-on-one with a German student. She struggled to convey a sentence to me, so I gently helped her put the correct words together. She looked at me in surprise and said something like, “But if that is the past participle, would the adverb come before the noun?” I had no idea about the correct sentence structure, but she did! In school, they seldom actually tried speaking in English.
Many of the students work for international companies like Microsoft or large pharmaceutical companies where English is the primary language. They do fine writing emails, but feel hesitant to speak up at meetings or on the phone. The organizers of these immersion programs look for volunteers who are engaging, friendly and open to new experiences. No ESL certificate required!
The programs run year-round, so one of the main factors of acceptance is if you are available the weeks when more volunteers are needed. After submitting the application with your selected date, you’ll receive a notice you were accepted, or the offer to come at another week. From there, it’s time to confirm and pack your suitcase!
Can I bring my kids?
Well, yes and no. To participate in the adult program, you need to be 18. However, several teen camps for 13-17 year olds are offered during the summer. Our daughter was 15 when she attended the Spanish program at La Alberca, a small town in an area called Salamanca.
While she engaged in all sorts of fun teen activities, we were three hours away, enjoying the adult program. One bonus advantage was the certificate she received verifying she had completed 86 hours of volunteer work. Her high school required 40 hours of volunteer work to graduate so she easily cleared that hurdle. One of the teen activities involved a small group making cookies. None of the kids in my daughter’s group had ever made cookies, so she enhanced the experience by teaching them the joys of eating raw cookie dough.
Walking and talking.
Plan on talking and listening. And in Germany, probably a bit of walking. Our German location, Laubach, had numerous walking trails outside our conference center. When matched up for one-on-one sessions, the Germans loved hiking while talking. On one morning, I had four one-on-one sessions in a row. With each student, we did a three KM loop during our 50-minute session, which meant I covered 12 KM before lunch!
On the last day of the program, we got in small groups and acted out, “A typical day in Englishhausen.” One retired woman humorously portrayed how the German students would say, “Let’s do our session while walking.” With each student, the woman acted out how she was soon crawling through the woods with exhaustion. (You had to be there to see the humor!) No fear. If you like sitting in a cozy wood-paneled nook to chat, that is fine also.
Typical daily lessons you’ll teach.
The purpose of the immersion program is to encourage the students to speak English. While its perfectly fine to talk about your cute grandkids, most of the time you’ll be turning the conversation around so the students share about their adorable grandkids. To keep everyone’s interest, the schedule varies daily. Each day, a different group activity takes place, such as coming up with a list of the ten top influential people in the world. I still don’t understand one group coming up with Pippi Longstocking. But it generated an interesting conversation.
Another day had us walking to the nearby castle, hoping to see the Count that still lives there. A local tour guide gave us an informative tour of the city and allowed time to stop into a bakery for traditional German delicacies. That evening each nationality sang a traditional song. Americans picked “Take Me Out to The Ball Game”, while the Brits sang, “God Save the Queen”.
Since many students have frequent business calls with English speaking clients, we practiced phone conversations. We got paired with a student and went to our respective rooms to have a phone conversation. Anglos get a cheat sheet with about 15 different scenarios, so again, there’s no fear of failing as a teacher.
Does the program work?
You bet! (See, if you were teaching in this program, you could explain to the students what “You bet” means.) I love the closing ceremony where each student gets a completion certificate. People who six days ago were hesitant to tell us their name and hometown are giving mini-speeches in perfect English about how much the program helped them improve their English. One German man in upper management laughed and said, “I just can’t let my boss see any pictures of me dressed up in costumes or being part of a Boy Band. He thinks this is a serious program.”
The evening ended with a group photo and lots of hugs and a few tears as people said goodbye. One man offered my husband and me free use of his summer cabin in the Black Forest any time we wanted it.
As I mentioned, my experiences were with Englischhausen and Pueblo Ingles. If you’re interested in the opportunity to teach English abroad, also check out Angloville. They advertise English immersion opportunities in Central Europe, Ireland, England and Malta.