Advising students on work experience and internships abroad is a complex process. Managing student expectations is the key to ensuring they have a positive and happy experience.
An internship is not a replacement for a language course and students who struggle too much with the language won’t benefit from the experience. “Students should really have an intermediate language level,” advises Sandro Humann from Estudio Sampere in Spain. “People in the foreign country will most probably not speak their mother tongue.” Depending on the work involved, a B2 level is the minimum needed.
Students can and usually do take a language course before their work experience. Check their level thoroughly – especially speaking and listening skills – and allow enough weeks of language study for them to gain the skills needed.
There are different types of working experience, depending on the country, the type of student and the organisation offering the placement. It’s essential that students understand what they will be doing: from a relatively short stay (2-4 weeks) for younger students to a 6-month internship for university-aged and post-university students, who have more to offer the work place. “Pre-university youngsters have very little to offer a Spanish company. The opportunities are therefore limited and frequently based on favours,” explains Bob Burger of Malaca Instituto. A longer internship, on the other hand, can benefit both the hosting company and the student, who gains a practical, CV-enhancing experience, fluency in the language and an insight into work and business practices in another country.
Students might prefer work related directly to their studies and career interests, but they must be flexible. “It is highly unlikely that they will be advising the CEO on the upcoming merger of two multinational companies, but they will gain huge insight and experience in working in an English speaking environment connected with their studies and – hopefully – future employment” explains Stephen Shortt, Managing Director of Alpha College of English.
Barbara Jasechke of GLS in Berlin agrees. It is not about finding a job, she says, but practising and improving German language skills in a real life professional context, as well as developing an understanding of German business culture.
Students with previous work experience sometimes feel they are being under-utilised, doing a job below their level. But if they can’t communicate with customers at a level that is equal to their experience, they can’t do the same job abroad. It may be that after a few weeks immersed in the vocabulary and pace of the language in that environment, they are given some higher level tasks, but this will also depend on their progress.
To avoid problems and disappointments, look at students’ education and training objectively and ask openly what their expectations are. Make sure they are realistic. Give them clear and accurate information about the internship and detail the actual tasks and responsibilities in advance.
For Stephen Shortt, being honest about what the students can and should expect is key: “While we have had many students stay on in their work placements and gain a full time job, this is more often the exception rather than the rule, and students should not necessarily focus on getting a job in their placement, but look at it as a valuable learning experience to improve their future career prospects.”
Students also need to understand what they are actually paying for, adds Barbara Jaeschke. It is not the internship, but the placement service, that saves them the hours of researching online, contacting companies, etc, that they would need to do themselves. Nor is an intern a client or guest of the host company. Their role is to work and give their best.
The more prepared a student is for the internship, the greater the ultimate benefit. Encourage them to research the host company, look at social behaviour in the workplace and learn about the culture of the host country. This will also increase their chances of integrating with their colleagues.
With the right attitude, energy, expectations and preparation, work experience abroad is a great learning experience for the future global citizen.
This article was written thanks to contributions from:
Sandro Humman, Marketing Manager, Estudio Sampere. Estudio Sampere was a founding school of IALC. The school teaches Spanish in Cuba (Havana), Ecuador (Cuenca) and Spain (Alicante, Madrid, Salamanca).
Barbara Jaeschke, Owner, GLS Sprachzentrum. GLS German Language School is a mini campus in central Berlin, ideal for German language students. Summer camps are run near Munich for younger students.
Bob Burger, Marketing Director, Malaca Instituto Club Hispanico SL. This Spanish language school forms a mini campus with its own swimming pool and dance studio. Sister school La Brisa is suitable for groups and students who prefer to stay with host families in Malaga.
Stephen Shortt, Managing Director, Alpha College of English. This English language school is located in central Dublin, Ireland, minutes away from restaurants, cinemas and art galleries.
Find more schools that offer language courses and work experience via the IALC course finder.