After you finally (!) choose your program and the country where you want to study abroad for a summer, semester or year, one of the most significant decisions you’ll encounter is housing (or so I feel). Not that other decisions are not relevant – things like deciding what to pack and what not to pack is highly important, too – but they won’t influence how your experience abroad unfolds as much as housing may. You can always buy jeans, t-shirts, a shampoo, or things you may have left at home, but you can’t change your home base.
I am used to host families because I first lived and studied abroad when I was ten years old. I was lucky enough to live in the homes of two pretty awesome families who rocked and changed my world. My English improved tremendously during my first experience (my first language is Spanish) and my appreciation for foreign cultures was born. With that said, it is not surprising that for my study abroad in Paris, I continued the tradition.
Here are some of the reasons why I highly recommend choosing a host family when you study abroad, with recommendations on how to make it work for both host and guest, and why I consider living with a host family to open the doors to unique opportunities.
1. You get out of your bubble and put yourself out there.
Be ready to try new things! By studying abroad in a new place you are already trying something new, but are you really trying if you intend to do everything the way you do at home? The American college experience often includes living away from home in a dorm or in an apartment with friends, so it makes sense to choose the same option – I get it. But studying abroad is in no way the same. In the States, you are likely not:
- Trying to learn or improve a language
- Trying to immerse yourself in a new culture
- Trying to learn idioms or have small talks with locals
Essentially, you probably do not have a language barrier that you would like to overcome. It is simply not the same.
2. Contrary to popular belief, you have a lot of freedom.
I will be honest: I was surprised to find out that some students would not consider staying with a host family for their time abroad. I was intrigued as to why and asked some of my classmates. One of the main reasons I heard was the fear of not being given the desired independence and instead getting “strict” host parents, who would not let them go out at night or come back whenever they wanted. I cannot speak for all host parents (because this can change from culture to culture and family to family), but they usually understand if you want to explore the city, region, country and/or continent that you are temporarily living in! As long as you respect their home and follow the suggestions they give you, things should go smoothly.
Communication is key in having a good relationship with your host family. You have to let them know in advance of your plans of traveling, visiting friends, or staying out until later at night. If you do so, things will go smoothly and you would be able to have a more comfortable stay and relationship with them. Yes, you are over 18. Yes, that means you are not a little child and you do not want to feel controlled. No, they are not your biological parents. But they will really care about you. Remember, they are your temporary family.
3. You get to continually practice the language.
School courses will definitely help you improve your studied language, but practicing with natives is one of the best ways to learn! Do not be afraid to share personal experiences with them (what your worries are, difficulties adapting, how you’ve tried to learn the language, the culture shock you’ve experienced, etc.) or seek for advice whenever they are free or want to spend time with you.
My host parents in Paris work a lot so I mainly see them at night. Whenever possible, I like saying hi and having small talks with them. Doing this is such a vital part of my study abroad and a great way to practice the language I’m learning! Really. The more you practice, the better it will be for you! Even if you already know the basics and you think having the how-are-you-doing talk seems dull, let me tell you that it is not. Maybe you know what to reply, but your pronunciation has to improve, or maybe you learn a colloquial way of having that conversation that the French book (or any other language book, in this case) has not taught you.
Also consider that is just Step 1 in a conversation. Step 2 can lead you to talk about transportation, cultural differences, pronunciation difficulties, or if you are very open minded, politics! Because why not?! It is actually very interesting to listen to the viewpoints of locals regarding political issues or any other topic specific to the country. Maybe you have followed the news or have read about X topics that intrigue you, but this is your chance to have a great conversation about anything!
4. If you believe in yourself and try, your language skills will improve.
Do not underestimate or think your level of French (Spanish, German, Italian, etc.) is “not that great” or not ready for advanced conversations. Go for it even if you think you are not completely ready; that’s how you learn more about the language and about yourself.
Conversations do not have to only be philosophical, controversial, or in-depth. Simple talking works, too! The point is to practice – and you have to “throw yourself in.” Try talking as much as you can, even if you make a lot of mistakes or you are not conjugating correctly. Try not to overthink when talking, just do it! You can improve those areas later. Remember, practicing with a native can be more difficult when back at home. Keep that in mind.
Also, it’s important to be realistic: not all natives outside of your host family will be willing to spend time trying to understand what you intend to say. For example, life in Paris is fast and everybody seems to always be running. Talking is not a common thing to do at the metro, so your host family is your best bet for practicing. It does not mean it is the only option. For example, you can practice when ordering something in a restaurant, when asking for information, when participating in class, etc. But it is true that sometimes when people hear you have an accent, they start talking to you in English. It may be because they are afraid you won’t understand what they want to tell you. While it’s no help, it happens.
5. You get to experience the warmth of a home and develop ties.
Last, but certainly not least, a host family can become your family away from home. Just as in every relationship, there are many things that influence the strength, length, and value of a friendship or connection. Only time will tell. But by taking advantage of hearing, talking and reading things in the target language during your study abroad while you learn about the customs, traditions and sayings of the people who amiably opened the doors of their home to a complete stranger, you’re likely to build bonds you only dreamed of.