Friday, December 11, 2015

Three Tips for Living with a Host Family

In the past, we've dedicated several posts to language learning methods that include immersion, choral drillinglanguage camps, and flashcards. However, it just occurred to me today that we've left out one of my personal favorites: living with a host family!

If you're a student considering studying abroad for a semester or two, I highly recommend living with a host family. One of the best decisions I made when choosing from the large selection of study abroad programs my university offered in Spain was to choose a program in Sevilla that was committed to placing as many students as possible in host families. Living with a host family is an amazing opportunity, since it allows (or forces) you to immerse yourself in the foreign language and culture when you're not in class.

Plaza de España in Sevilla, Spain
Since so many students had chosen to study in Sevilla at the same time as I did, some of us had to be assigned to host families in pairs. In my case, a girl from my university (who I'd never met before) and myself were assigned to the home of a lovely widow in the Triana neighborhood who had been hosting American students for over a decade.

By the end of our 6-month stay with her, my Spanish had improved from being passable to near fluency, and I truly felt like I was saying goodbye to a second mother as I boarded the bus to the airport. However, the other girl's Spanish had hardly improved at all, and she didn't even bother to say goodbye to our host mom before heading to the airport on her own.

While I will never know for sure why we had such vastly different experiences, I think a lot of it can be attributed to the fact that I spent a lot of time interacting with our host mom, while the other girl would hide away in her room or go out with American friends. Based on the insights I gained from comparing our experiences, here are three key tips on how to make the most of living with a host family:

#1 - Talk to them! This probably seems obvious, but several students in my program, including my housemate, seemed to avoid talking to their host families at all costs. Not only is this a missed learning opportunity, but it's also rude - if someone opens their home to you, the least you can do is talk to them, even if you're not perfect at speaking their language. It might be difficult at first (it certainly was for me since my host mom had a very thick andaluz accent that I could barely understand), but with time and practice, you'll improve.

#2 - Do things with them! This is purposely vague because you could do any number of things with your host family, depending on their interests and hobbies. For example, if they love tennis and invite you to play with them, take the opportunity to join them (even if you're terrible). In my case, spending time with my host mom meant watching Operación Triunfo, a singing competition/reality show until 2 a.m. with her and talking about who our favorite contestants were. No matter what you do, as long as you're interacting with them, you're sure to improve your language skills.

Semana Santa in Sevilla, Spain
#3 - Ask them about their culture, and teach them about yours! There are undoubtedly tons of differences between your culture and theirs, and the best way to learn about them is to ask your host family. If you're there for a holiday, they'll almost certainly invite you to join in their traditions. Not only will you learn new vocabulary, but you'll also have a deeper appreciation for their culture. You can also share your cultural traditions with them. For example, my host family taught me all about the traditions surrounding the celebration of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Sevilla and invited me to go with them to view the city's famous processions. In turn, I got to explain the concept of the Easter Bunny to them.

As long as you're willing to put in some effort to truly take advantage of this amazing opportunity you've been given, you'll more than likely end up wishing you could stay there just a little bit longer. Better still, you might end up with a second family on the other side of the world, just like I did!

Did you live with a host family while studying abroad? If so, let us know about your experiences in the comments below!