Staying in a host family when you travel to learn a language is a wise choice in so many ways. The Language Gap only uses families carefully vetted and well known to our partner language schools and programmes. Here is some guidance on how to make that relationship between you and your hosts grow and work both ways.
1. Bring a small gift.
Although you may be a paying guest, you are still a guest! Show them that you appreciate them opening up their home to a stranger. Bring something to reflect your local area; something small is fine (an attractive box of biscuits or local sweets, a small picture, ornament).
2. Learn the ‘polite noises’ before you go.
Getting your manners right from the outset is important. Check out all the Ps & Qs before you arrive, and make sure you use them! At the same time, don’t worry too much if you slip up; your hosts are used to tired and confused foreigners, and will forgive you if you forget to thank them for, say, dinner one night. Just make sure you make up for it in the morning. Write them a thank you letter or email once you get home.
3. Try a little bit of everything.
Be clear before you arrive about your dietary needs in order to avoid problems at your first meal. Host families are used to strange diets and can cater for most situations. Even so, you will have to be patient and be prepared to be flexible. The food will be unfamiliar, and it is important (not to mention part of being a polite guest) to try a bit of everything you are given. There is no doubt that you will find some things more delicious than others, but it is rude not to try, and disrespectful not to thank the person who has put themselves out to provide you with a meal. Learn how to say ‘thank you, it was delicious, but I’m full.’
4. Observe customs.
There will be behaviours which are different to those you have at home. Notice what the host family does, and follow suit. Remove your shoes in the house if they do. Leave your shirt on if they do. Wipe down the bathroom if you leave it wet, help load the dishwasher or offer to do the dishes, make your bed in the morning, keep your dirty laundry in a bag rather than leaving it in heaps around your room, check what the family does about leaving the table at the end of a meal, ask directly what the house rules are so that you don’t make an unintentional cultural gaffe. It’s a really interesting way of learning about the local culture, and finding out how cutlery is used in different countries is actually surprisingly enlightening. Oh, and check with your hosts about the plumbing. Hot water may be less plentiful and more expensive than at home, and the loo may be less, erm, resistant. If in doubt, ask, and use the bathroom bin!
5. Get off your phone/laptop.
You are in the host family to learn the language and find out about the culture, and not just to provide your mates back home with a constant Instagram feed of your every movement. If you must update, just allow yourself a few minutes every evening. Go cold turkey on the rest, and take some paperbacks or magazines if you want downtime. Take a notebook and pen to write new vocabulary and draw sketches; this is a great way to make conversation with your hosts. Having constant internet access is not going to help you get on with a host family, and it is bad manners to be buried in your feed 24/7. It will also cause homesickness. You especially should not have your phone at the table. Don’t hog the WiFi if it is offered; the speed may not be what your are used to at home. Watch local TV rather than Netflix, and listen to the local radio. You’ll learn so much more, and you’ll be much more engaged with your experience.
6. Let them know where you are.
Your host family is there to take care of you, to help you learn the language, and to make you feel welcome in the country. In return for their hospitality, you should let them know where you will be and when. Upon arrival, exchange phone numbers, and contact them if your plans change while you are out. They will be concerned about you if you don’t turn up on time, so make sure that you are clear. Make a timetable of your classes and activities, and be on time. Attitudes to timekeeping may be different, and you may find yourself waiting around, particularly in Latin countries. Don’t be offended; it’s all part of the experience.
Arrange a time every day or two to contact your family back home by message or Skype, for instance, in order to reassure them that you are fine, and send them a postcard. Yes. A real postcard. With a stamp. Post Offices are really fascinating places, honestly.
7. Break the ice.
Use the phrasebook provided by The Language Gap to make conversation. There are various topics to get things started: your family, your home, your hobbies, films you have seen, holidays you have been on. Make sure you have a few photos of home to show your host family. They’ll be really interested, and it will help them to understand you as a person. If there are children in the family, make use of them; they are the most forgiving teachers, they will help you with the language, and their curiosity and openness is really useful when it comes to being part of the family.
8. Ask for help.
Your host family are the key to a positive experience. Tell them if you have forgotten something, and they will show you where to stock up. Ask about the local area, where to go, and where not to go. They will be delighted to help you. They have chosen to have international students to stay partly because they want to share their home town with you, and they are your best tourist guides. Get them to show you how the local public transportation works, what the traffic rules are for cars and pedestrians, where to get the best bargains and souvenirs. Make the most of them, and allow them to help you if you experience a problem.
9. Laugh - embrace your mistakes
You are there to learn the language and about the culture. There will be misunderstandings, and you will make mistakes. See the funny side of the mistakes you make, and if your host family find something you have said unintentionally funny, write it down if you don’t understand, and ask your language teacher at class. Humour is a great way to learn, and a great way to make friends.
10. Communicate any problems
Prepare for your trip carefully; make sure you have any medication you will need, and that The Language Gap, the language school, activity centres and your host family are aware of any existing conditions you have, however minor you may think they are. This includes phobias, allergies, dietary requirements and religious practices. Make sure that you know how to explain these in the target language. When you arrive, talk about your needs with the host family. If you are unhappy about something, don’t allow it to fester, even if you are shy or embarrassed. Firstly, try to sort these out initially with your host family, then with the language school or programme provider, and then with The Language Gap. We are all there to help, and happy to do so! Don’t moan at your family or friends back home about minor things they can’t do anything about; they will worry about you and think you are having a terrible time. Let them know you are safe and well, and let the host family and language school know as soon as you need help, no matter how trivial it may seem.
All this will make your stay happier and you’ll gain so much from the trust you have built with your host family. There may even be tears when you leave!