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Truly Extended Families

September 21, 2001. That was the day I arrived in Spain to study abroad for two semesters. Some details are fuzzy, like the flight itself, but I do remember the bus ride. I also recall worrying about what my host family was going to be like. Would they like me? What if I didn’t like them? What if I didn’t understand anything they said? What was I getting myself into? I think for many people one of the most exciting and nerve-racking aspects of studying abroad is living with a host family, and it certainly was for me. I was used to traveling and adapting to new places, but I was not used to being part of a family that was not my own.

plane ticket to Spain

“We actually made it!” – there was some doubt, since the trip was postponed due to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and then the day we were supposed to leave the plane just didn’t show up.

My worries were unfounded, of course. Memé, my host mother, was energetic and welcoming. She genuinely loved learning about other cultures and for that very reason hosted US students in her home. I got to live with her wonderful family and practice my Spanish more than I ever would have if I had stayed with other students. Because Memé’s children were all adults, when they would come over for lunch as a family (as is customary in Spain) they would help me with topics that I didn’t understand, and explain customs and expressions. I loved living there, and when I went back to visit, they again welcomed me with open arms. More recently, one of my clients went to Valencia to live there for a month, and Memé and her family welcomed him into their home and made him feel welcome.

While traveling in Japan, I participated in a home visit. This is, of course, not like living with a family, but they still welcome you into their home and you get to experience what everyday life is like for that family, instead of just passively witnessing people’s activities as a tourist.

In Argentina, I was lucky enough to stay with two women who shared their homes with me. Susana and her family taught me how to drink mate and about Argentine wine, and Nani took me on a walking tour of the city, showing me hidden treasures in the city that I would never have seen had I not met her.

Of course, living with host families is not without its challenges. La convivencia is difficult even with people you know very well, and with people with similar cultural backgrounds. Sometimes those difficulties are magnified when you are in a culture with which you are not yet familiar, when there are language barriers, or if there are personal conflicts. Despite these potential challenges, I always recommend that students live with a host family during their study abroad program. The benefits of practicing language skills, learning about everyday life in another country, and establishing personal connections, far outweigh any possible discomfort from sharing a home with a host family.

*This post originally appeared in Shenandoah Valley Language Services’ blog

Written by

Tammy Bjelland
Language lover, teacher & coach.

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