You’re about to head off on the trip of a lifetime! You’ve got your bags packed, your itinerary is locked into place, and you’re counting down the days until you set foot beyond that departure gate…
...But the nerves officially hit when you start to think about the fact that you’ll be living with people you’ve never met before. You don’t know what to expect. Travelling overseas alone is terrifying enough, nevermind wondering whether you’ll get along with a new family who don’t even speak your language.
The good news is that your host family totally gets it. More often than not, they’ve done this before - and not just once. They know what they’re getting into, and they understand that there might be a few hiccups along the way. Despite this, they’re still super keen to meet you!
If this isn’t enough to put your mind at ease, below you’ll find five pieces of essential advice that will prepare you enough to settle your host family nerves. Read on to learn the MUST-do’s that make for an incredible homestay experience, as well as hear from some students who have been through this exciting adjustment themselves, like Mia.
Thinking positively and being open encourages you to focus on the amazing and unusual aspects of your time overseas, rather than becoming too overwhelmed by the things you can’t control. If you keep an open mind, setting realistic and reasonable expectations as you go, you will be unshakeable!
Just remember to expect to run into things that you are not used to, and always listen with respect. Your host family is guaranteed to have different customs to you. They will likely be very different from your own family back home. They may also share different opinions to you, or perhaps they live with pets or children - something you might have never experienced before.
If these things make you a little anxious, see if you can reach out to your host family via Skype or email before you head off to get to know them a bit more. And - above everything - remind yourself that a homestay is temporary, so any discomfort you feel will be momentary (though you’ll probably enjoy it so much you never want to leave!).
Take the time to think about exactly what you do and don’t want in your new home before you apply. Can you tolerate a smoking household? Would you prefer a vegetarian family? Are you allergic to cats? Write down your non-negotiables and your preferences, and include these in your homestay application. These will be taken into account when you apply so you can be matched with an appropriate family.
Sometimes though, not everything can be considered. In these cases it is vital that you communicate with your host family at the first instance. As soon as you arrive, disclose your allergies, illnesses and food restrictions, so that your family can make you feel as comfortable as possible in their home. If you are placed with a family who does not speak English, research and note down important vocabulary about these things so that you prevent your important conditions from being lost in translation, or pack a foreign language dictionary for when you get stuck.
The first few days of your homestay are also an opportunity to set the ground rules so that your host family is comfortable living with you. Ask about the rules, curfews and daily habits of the house, as well as key contact details in case of an emergency. Try to stick to daily meal times and curfews as much as possible, but if this isn’t possible, be very clear about your plans outside of the house so you don’t have your host family worrying about you.
Lastly, speak out in a considerate way if there is a major issue, first with your host family, and then with those who have organised your homestay. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you have to endure a situation at the risk of seeming impolite!
“The highlight of the program for me was without doubt the opportunity to live with real French people in a real French town (in other words, NOT Paris). As someone who has learnt French grammar for years, without the opportunity to practice orally or increase my vocabulary, studying at Cavilam and staying with a French family was the perfect way to turn my knowledge of French grammar rules into the real skill of communicating in a foreign language.”
- Ben D’Andrea, Intensive French in Vichy
Speaking of being polite… remember that it is a huge sacrifice to share your home and day-to-day life with a stranger - especially a stranger who may not initially understand you. Being respectful with your new family will show them that you truly appreciate their generosity, often without even having to say a word.
A good rule of thumb is: DON’T treat your homestay like a hotel, and DO behave like you would in front of your parents or another close relative. In other words, pay close attention to personal space and your potential impact on the house to avoid any unnecessary tension.
For example, asking your host family for permission before you use or share common areas will ensure that you don’t disrupt any plans your family might already have. Going out of your way to keep the house clean and offering help where you can will demonstrate that you recognise the extra effort put in by your family to accommodate you.
In any case, take the time to consider whether what you are doing could affect or upset your hosts, even in a small way.
By following the tip above, you’ll be able to create strong relationships with some pretty great locals who live in a way that is completely unique. What a fantastic way to gain insider knowledge on local events, slang and culture!!
To make the most of this amazing opportunity, curiosity is key. Your host family is bound to be interested in your hobbies, how you normally live or what you eat back home. Show the same interest in their lives and be open and creative with sharing your culture. There are plenty of ways to do this, regardless of your foreign language ability. Try cooking local dishes together with your host mum, listening to music with your host brother, or gifting something that represents your background when you arrive.
The important thing to note is that you’ll only get out of your experience what you put into it. So muster up the courage to be social during meal times, and test out any new vocabulary you’ve learnt in language class to an audience of very eager listeners over lunch or dinner.
“The home-stay experience was incredible, I truly feel like I have another family in Mexico. Learning about the varying cultures and customs was always interesting and overcoming the language barrier was rather amusing on many occasions.”
- Jessica Tait, Public Health in Mexico
No matter how your experience turns out, it is important to show gratitude to your host family before you leave. The chances are that your homestay will be one of the most memorable aspects of your trip, providing you with friends for life, support, and a wealth of insider knowledge about a new culture. Not only that, but living so closely with another family will teach you incredibly useful things about yourself and about how to communicate despite language and cultural barriers.
...So remember to say a big THANK YOU!
Hello! I'm Taylor, a Marketing Coordinator here at AIM Overseas. What I also am is a mediocre salsa dancing amateur, a lover of modern art, and someone who falls over a lot. Studying overseas in Germany for a year in 2015 changed my life for the better.... so much so that I did it again for three months in Spain after I graduated two years later. I'm passionate about helping students get overseas during their degree, as well as encouraging anyone to dive out of their comfort zone to travel!