Two months into her teaching placement in Japan, Holly Catling was pulled aside by a colleague who gently informed her that, by pointing at students to answer questions in class, she was inadvertently making a very rude hand gesture.

''I had no idea,'' says Holly, a 24-year-old graduate from London. ''It seemed perfectly normal to me, but according to Japanese etiquette you should never use your finger to point at someone. The teachers didn't tell me for ages because they thought that the children should learn that foreigners act differently.''

Evidently, Holly's pupils were not the only ones facing a steep learning curve. ''I definitely matured a lot," she says of her year as a teaching assistant at a junior high school in Yosano, a coastal town two hours from Kyoto by train. ''It was a great experience, and it also made me more self-reliant and professional about work and deadlines.''

Holly's placement was arranged through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme, a graduate scheme run by the Japanese government to improve language teaching and promote cultural understanding in schools.

''The idea is for the JET person to bring a native speaker's perspective to the teaching, and make it more authentic and relevant,'' says an assistant coordinator at JET's London office. ''Some applicants have experience of teaching already, although this is by no means a requirement. And the transferable skills you pick up, like the ability to communicate and work in a team, are useful for future jobs.''

The active JET community in Japan organises events to bring teaching assistants together, creating a social network across the country. ''JET does try to support you,'' says Holly. ''I felt far more secure than if I'd just gone to teach in a school by myself. The nearest other JET to me was about 25 minutes away by bike, and there's a helpline if you have any big problems.''

The British Council also runs a language assistant programme, which is open to native English speakers who have completed at least two years of higher education. Max Munton, 23, became a British Council teaching assistant in China after graduating from the University of Liverpool with a degree in popular music in 2008.

''I chose to go with the British Council because they were sending about 80 of us out there on the same day, and I wanted to go with other like-minded people,'' he explains. ''Also, we had two weeks' intensive training in a language school in Shanghai which was free, so I didn't pay over the odds for a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl) course.''

After teaching in a high school in Guangzhou for six months, Max transferred to a kindergarten. ''I much preferred the kindergarten,'' he says. ''The kids had so much energy, and were really keen to learn. In the high school, I only had 40 minutes a week with each class, but in the kindergarten I had a lot more time, so I really got to know them all. I was just teaching basic English and polite phrases, but it felt really rewarding.''

Some specialist travel companies offer Tefl courses and teaching placements, allowing would-be teachers to travel abroad secure in the knowledge that they are not alone. ''We run two internships in Thailand and China, which provide that extra support for people who really want to go abroad, really want to teach English, but are a bit nervous about it,'' says Honor Baldry, from the volunteer travel and Tefl company i-to-i.

The internships last four to five months and cost £995 (for China) and £1,095 (for Thailand). This includes a standard 120-hour (China) or 140-hour (Thailand) Tefl course, accommodation, a living allowance and a reputable teaching placement, arranged by i-to-i. ''We know that interns also want to meet people, so we place them together. And there is 24-hour support,'' says Baldry.

Even with the degree of security offered by these programmes, the experience of teaching English abroad for a considerable period of time is life-changing. ''It was amazing, and in a way it's been hard coming home,'' says Holly, who will be teaching at a language school in Surrey this summer. ''I miss my life in Japan, but I know that if I go back I'd be homesick too. I feel a bit like I'm in between now, but at least I know not to point at Japanese students in my classes.''

For more information, contact JET programme: 020-7465 6668; British Council: 0161 957 7755; languageassistants-ela.htm. i-to-i internship: 0800 093 3148;