When I first decided to go abroad to France, it didn’t actually register that I would be living with host families. It wasn’t until after I received my location, information on my new school, and had to write my first introductory letter to my new “parents” that I realized that I was about to step into the real lives of other people. If you are anything like me, this reality made me a little nervous. But while it may seem daunting to live with a family different from your own, the fear and any negatives are far outweighed by the positives of such an adventure.
Living with a host family is one of the best ways to become fluent in your target language. Being fluent is not just about correct grammar, and an extensive vocabulary. Fluency requires an in-depth knowledge of colloquial expressions, cultural nuance, and accent. All of these come naturally when living with a host family. Host brothers and sisters make sure that you are using trending expressions. Younger siblings have an innocent yet direct way of correcting the way you pronounce words and parents are quick to offer alternative ways of saying otherwise delicate things. As you spend time with locals, you’ll naturally begin to imitate the way they speak which eventually leads to a loss of your own American accent. By the time I left France, strangers didn’t actually know where I was from! They would start talking to me and then a cloudy look would come across their face. “Et d’où viens-tu mademoiselle?” “And where are you from, miss?” they’d say. To this day, I get a certain amount of pleasure of asking them in return where they think I’m from. People have all sorts of explanations for my accent- “you must come from the north of France,” “maybe Belgium,” “oh I know, one parent is Swiss, and the other German.” To see the looks on their faces when I tell them that I was born in the United States to parents who don’t speak any French at all, is the best!
Living with a host family is by far the easiest way to become part of a community. When you are in a new place, there is nothing more intimidating than knowing no one and having to make all new friends. Staying with a host family helps a lot! Their friends become your acquaintances, if not your best friends. Their social calendar becomes your social calendar. On the second day of my year in France, my host family arranged for me to spend time with the friends of their daughter who was studying in the United States at the time. On day two, you can only imagine how poor my French was but somehow I got through the day and came away with some new friends! I got to know other people during my year but my first friends remained my best friends– and those are friendships I still hold dear.
Being a part of a local family meant an amazing opportunity for participation in local cultural events. I joined my host family for Friday evening community dances, Red Cross fundraising events, and my host dad even ran for mayor. At 16, I had a front row seat to local French politics! How thrilling! For holidays, I joined the family for their traditional celebrations which included dinners that lasted 4-5 hours and many delicacies that were new for me. I experienced life at their rhythm and pace. This inevitably left me to reflect on my experience. I spent a lot of time thinking about differences and similarities between me and them, between Americans and the French. Perhaps, one of my fondest memories in my host family were the conversations I had with my host dad each evening. We would spend an hour or two after dinner discussing events of the day, and world news. We talked a lot about nothing and everything all at the same time. I was surprised by the number of similarities between our two cultures. And perhaps more importantly, I learned to laugh at our differences as opposed to 1) fearing them or 2) assuming my own superiority. People and cultures should never be subjected to a ranking system, but despite their differences, can co-exist harmoniously.
I don’t pretend to suggest that living with a family abroad doesn’t come with its own difficulties but every time I think back on my experience in France, I am reminded of how essential the home stay was in developing me as a person. It’s worth it.
Until next time… A bientôt!
(This blog was originally published in Vistas for Education, February 2017)