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Whilst Spanish is the official language, there are not less than sixty-five indigenous languages. The forty-three million people fit comfortably into a little over a million square miles. The principal religion is Roman Catholic with the remainder of the Episcopal and Jewish faith.
In a continent where baseball and US television is enormously popular, there is considerable enthusiasm for learning English. However, it is ‘American’ English that has most currency and is most sought after, not ‘English’ English. The distinction is noted by locals, bringing considerable advantage to Canadian and North American candidates. Nevertheless, there are many opportunities and, as ever, persistence pays dividends. Those actively looking for work will find it, and be rewarded by the experience of teaching some of the most enthusiastic, fun-loving students on the planet. In addition to this America is corporate Big Brother, and its influence and presence is pervasive and there is a huge market composed of those who want or need to communicate with and comprehend Native English speakers.
Quite unlike Europe, for those wishing to teach in a state or private school, there is not the requirement for a PGCE or an undergraduate degree. Nor is there a requirement for two years’ teaching experience - all you’ll need to teach English as a foreign language in Colombia is a TESOL certificate.
With language institutes you can, in the main, expect to find yourself teaching those who work in business or tourism, less so those doing it just for fun. This ‘needs-driven’ market makes for sharp, well-motivated students. Don’t expect to find people dozing at the back of the class. Commensurately, these people are paying for the privilege, and will expect a respectable, well-turned out, professional teacher. Another thing to be aware of is that because Latin languages are inflected, students will naturally have a much higher awareness of grammar than English-speakers. Be on your metal, and prepare well. You don’t want to have your knowledge of tenses tested by your students, who learned them all by heart before they were ten!
Because of the huge variety of standards in education you can expect a commensurately patchy student body. Some will have very little experience; however, others, privately educated, will have many years experience in studying English.
Latin American students are amongst those most highly and warmly spoken of by experienced TESOL teachers. Expect fun, great enthusiasm, but don’t be surprised if nobody shows up if there is a major sporting event in the offing.
‘Naturalisation’ - i.e. the legal right to work and reside, which is strictly necessary in, say the EU or the US and Canada, is not paid much attention to in Latin America. For all practical purposes, you do not really need a work permit to work, and….. you will not get a work permit unless you have a job, and will not get that kind of job unless you have a work permit. Your application for this rare device must be made in your country of origin, and since language schools do not, as a rule, recruit abroad - they want to see you in the flesh before offering a contract - your chances of becoming legally ‘naturalised’ are mighty slim but it does happen.
Perhaps the wise job-seeker, in the best of all possible Latin American worlds directs their attention to their visa requirements and entitlements. This will depend on what your country of origin has fixed up with the host country. You can find all about this from the Colombian embassy in your country of origin. Think about also what you have to do to renew your visa. All the way back home, or does a cross-border trip do nicely? How many times can you renew your tourist visa?
Bogotá is the nation’s capital, home to futuristic architecture, and a vibrant intellectual and cultural life. There remains a pleasing vestige of the old colonial architecture, and the contrast between old and new, like the contrast between rich and poor, underscores a diverse culture to experience.
A modicum of preparation prior to setting out will pay dividends. Think of not one country in South America, but the whole continent. You may end up moving around quite a bit once you hit this part of the world. Hence, it is a very good idea to contact all of the Latin American embassies in your country of origin, enquiring about teaching and visas, and see what you get back. You will find that you have a nice big file folder of leads and information, but will vary from country of origin to country of origin, Latin American embassy to Latin American embassy.
Like most Latin American countries jobs are mostly gained on-the-spot. Hence you will need a letter of introduction, in Spanish, your resume or CV translated accordingly, plus a translation of your transcripts and certificates. But there are judgement calls to be made. You don’t want to use any old Spanish - Venezuelan Spanish will appear idiosyncratic and strange in Argentina. The best bet if you can is to use Castillian - Spanish as spoken in Spain. This is seen as the mother tongue, universally comprehended, and carries style, weight and considerable currency throughout Latin America.
Equally, hone or acquire those language skills. Latin America is not the Costa del Sol in Spain with it’s huge, English-speaking tourist industry. Do not expect English to be widely spoken or in use. For all practical purposes a little bit of Spanish can go an awfully long way in determining both your employability, and the quality of your experience.
Again one should be aware of the wide variety of different Spanish dialects in use across the continent, and choose carefully what idiom you acquire. In Castillian, as spoken by the King of Spain, ‘calzone’ means, after the Italian, a pizza folded in half. In ‘Mexican’ Spanish, it means ‘underpants’. Hence, caveat emptor! Language acquisition takes time and effort and the buyer should beware what Spanish they buy into. Again, to all intents and purposes, Castillian both sounds up-market, and is most widely understood. Nevertheless, expect fertile ground for amusing confusion here and there as you travel from country to country.
There are avenues which can be utilised to gain a placement prior to setting out. Most US TESOL schools have close ties with one or more Latin American countries. The Language and Training Group of the British Council arranges for ‘language assistants’ to be placed for one academic year, though applicants must be 20-30 years of age, with at least ‘A’ level Spanish. The Association of American Schools in South America (AASSA, 14750 NW77 Court, Suite 210, Miami Lakes, FL 33016; email@example.com; www.aassa.com ), acts as a recruitment agent. Candidates must pay $25 to register, then the placement fee is $300, normally reimbursed by employers. The South American Explorers keeps lists of schools which employ English language teachers, and maintain a database of volunteers. They charge $50 a year for membership, with a $10 premium added to non US members to cover the cost of postage. Amity Volunteer Teachers Abroad (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.amity.org) are active in Latin America, offering nine-month placements.
Other good places to look include El Tiempo Spanish language newspaper, which often carries ads for teachers, and the British Council Teaching Centre in Bogotá.
For many, getting a job will mean knocking on doors - hence, the need for those translated documents, helped, hopefully, by a smattering of polite Spanish. Local telephone directories detail universities, schools and language institutes, etc, which are often only too willing to interview candidates. Highly-qualified, and more importantly, well-turned-out, organised and enthusiastic teachers are in short supply. If they like you they will most certainly find some teaching for you!
Hence, one of the best and most realistic propositions is to build a working life based around constructing a curriculum a few hours here and a few hours there, bearing mind that revenue from ‘privates’ can double a teacher’s income, one should always be on the lookout for private students, whatever one’s employment or visa status. The market for those wanting private tuition or conversation practice is huge, and potentially very lucrative, therefore, not be neglected. Give yourself time to build a portfolio of work. This is best safeguard to both your income, and employment status, the latter of which can be highly fluid with schools and language institutes.
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