You’ve decided to travel to another country for a Spanish immersion. You’ve chosen the right immersion school, and now, you might be wondering whether you should also do a homestay–that is, live with a local host family during your time in that country.
I’ll make this easy for you. Should you do a homestay?
Absolutely…unequivocally…without a doubt…YES! Living with a local family will accelerate your language learning at an AMAZING rate.
In 1999, I did an immersion in Costa Rica, but I didn’t do a homestay. My excuse was that I needed to work on grad school applications, and living in an apartment alone would allow that. Looking back, that was just an excuse. Truth is, I think I just felt weirded out thinking about living with some strange family I didn’t know.
The first day of school, a Monday, started with a placement test. I ended up in a class with just one other student. I was amazed because we were at the exact same level. The woman doing the placement tests nailed it!
By Wednesday, however, I started noticing some differences between my classmate and me. By Friday, my Spanish couldn’t compete with his. The next week, we weren’t even in the same class anymore!
The difference wasn’t that he was any smarter. The difference was that he was living with a local family.
You should do a homestay because it gives you the ability to truly immerse yourself in the language and culture. It works because it gives you far more time to practice what you learn in class. Even more, the conversations that happen in the home are more natural than the ones in class. This results in you acquiring the language much, much faster.
Although homestays are a great addition to your Spanish immersion program, they occasionally present a challenge. Speaking with homestay coordinators from several immersion schools, here are some tips to help you avoid a homestay nightmare.
Make Your Preferences Known
Do you have certain dietary restrictions? Are you deathly allergic to pets? Meeting these preferences could mean the difference between a great homestay versus a trip to the hospital.
Well before you board the plane to your immersion country, you should make sure the homestay coordinator knows the info needed to match you with the right host family. Most schools have a form or a questionnaire for this, and you should definitely complete it well in advance.
There are an endless number of preferences you may have–family with or without kids, public transportation vs. walking distance to school, etc. You may also be concerned about issues surrounding sexual orientation, religion, or occupation. Although it may not be possible for the homestay coordinator to match 100% of your preferences, communicate them all and then concentrate on the most important ones. If something major is not specifically listed on the questionnaire, make sure to let the homestay coordinator know.
Know What to Expect
The immersion school pays the host family a weekly stipend for your homestay, and there are certain expectations regarding the accommodations and amenities you will receive. For example, there may be expectations regarding the preparation of meals, doing laundry, the living and sleeping areas, or the number of simultaneous students allowed in the house.
These expectations are meant to create a great experience for you as the homestay guest. Familiarizing yourself with these expectations before you travel will help you plan for your trip better. Therefore, make sure to get this info from the homestay coordinator as you make your travel preparations.
Knowing these expectations can also help you identify when you are being under-served by your host family. The truth is that some families only accept homestay students in order to get the weekly pay. Usually this isn’t an issue. However, occasionally, a family will try to maximize the profitability of the homestay to excessive lengths that are to the detriment of the student. For example, instead of providing the expected, full-family meals, a family may provide only trace amounts of food to the student.
Being able to determine quickly if you’re being under-served can have a huge impact on your homestay experience.
Be Prepared for Regional and Cultural Differences
In addition to the school’s expectations for host families, there may also be general regional differences between your home and immersion countries worth knowing in advance. For example, in the United States, we generally flush toilet paper. However, in many other countries, flushing toilet paper can cause plumbing problems in many homes. Knowing something like this in advance can help you avoid an embarrassing situation.
Ask your homestay coordinator about common issues encountered by students from your country. Once you arrive at your host home, you can double check to see which practices are applicable.
Something that may be harder to plan for are cultural differences. For example, in the U.S., it’s usually considered rude to refer to a person by their physical traits. However, in many Spanish-speaking countries, referring to a chubby woman as “la gordita” or to a black male as “el negrito” is not meant to be offensive. Typically, diminutives such as -ita and -ito represent a sort of term of endearment.
Therefore, it’s important to keep and open mind and not always make quick judgments. You can often learn a lot about the intent based on the demeanor and tone of the speaker.
That said, if certain cultural differences still make you feel uncomfortable, be sure to discuss them openly with your host family or the homestay coordinator. In the unlikely event that your host family demonstrates hate-based dialogue or discrimination, you should notify the homestay coordinator immediately and request to be placed with another family.
Become a Family Member
In the best homestays, you are treated more like a family member than a hotel guest. Ideally, you will be invited into the family’s everyday life including events such as living room chats, traveling with them to visit relatives, birthday parties, etc.
Just like when a distant family member comes to visit, a good host will try to help you acclimate to your new surroundings. They should tell you the good places to go and which places to avoid. They should make sure you know how to get to and from class. I’ve even heard of host mothers waiting for their students at the bus stop in the evening like you would do a grade schooler!
Of course, you don’t have much control over how deeply your host family integrates you into their activities or to what extent they’ll go to help you acclimate. However, if they seem to purposefully exclude you from everything or if they treat you like they really don’t want you in the house, this is unacceptable and should be reported to the homestay coordinator.
Ask For Changes
Your homestay is meant to be a positive experience. It should help you practice and perfect your Spanish. It should allow you to experience the host country’s culture much more deeply. Ideally, it should deliver you great lasting friendships with your host family. I have a friend who still calls, writes, and visits his Mama Tica, his Costa Rican homestay mother, more than a decade later.
If you find yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable or if you feel you are not being treated correctly, you should tell someone and ask for changes. Uncomfortable situations are not always ill-intended. For example, one host family met the school’s expectation of giving its student his own bedroom. However, they did this by placing the entire rest of the family in the only other bedroom. Needless to say, the student was very uncomfortable in this situation and needed to be placed with a family that could better accommodate a homestay guest more comfortably.
Depending on the nature of the issue, it may be appropriate to discuss it with the host family. Otherwise, it may be necessary to escalate the issue to the homestay coordinator. Regardless, if there are issues affecting the quality of your homestay, you should ask for changes including requesting to be moved to another family.
Remember, your homestay is an important part of your Spanish immersion experience. It allows you to fully immerse yourself in the language and culture. It helps you improve your language skills much faster than if you live alone.
The vast majority of the time, your homestay will be excellent without much effort on your part. However, given the time and expense of doing an immersion program, you shouldn’t leave your homestay up to chance. Therefore, use these tips, and have an excellent homestay.
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