Tips and Tricks for Host-Family Living

You survive the eight (plus) hour plane ride, you give the customs officer your best smile and get your passport stamped, then you somehow find your way to your group/professor/team in a foreign airport; the logistics alone of a study abroad can be daunting to say the least. Add a host-family set-up to the mix and it’s downright terrifying. Not only are you practicing a language that you know very little of, but you’re trying to personalize and adapt to your new living conditions respectfully with your limited vocabulary. Factor in the aspect of actually getting along with your family and you can see that it’s a fragile set-up.

In spite of these challenges, the benefits have been proven time and time again; students of a foreign language learn best when immersed in conversation with native speakers. Thus, living with a host family (for any amount of time) is a huge advantage in learning a new language. As a student of both German and Swahili, I have had the privilege of living with two families – one in a suburban town in northern Bavaria (a region of Germany) called Bad Neustadt an der Saale, the other in a modest village in the Tanga region of Tanzania called Lushoto – to practice my language skills.

Considering how similar my German home was to my American home in suburban Michigan, I am going to focus on my home-stay in Lushoto, Tanzania. Living with my host-family there in East Africa was an experience which I think provided me the greatest linguistic improvement for such a short span of time, especially considering that I had only taken two years of Swahili prior to my visit, in comparison to five years of German before my home-stay in Bad Neustadt.

On the day I arrived at my host-home in Lushoto, I wrote the following: “We pulled into a narrow road, lined with street-vendors and small shops and then turned into a court-like opening where a gaggle of neighborhood children were playing soccer. As soon as the bus pulled up, the children noticed it was stuffed with “wazungu” (white people in Swahili), they came rushing to the bus in a frenzy… I cannot recall a time when I was so nervous or so out of my comfort zone as that moment, standing on the porch and saying goodbye to Mama (our professor), Alfred (our tour guide), and Esther (our Swahili teacher)…”

I consider myself an exceptionally outgoing person. Seldom do I hesitate to approach someone with a question, concern, or even a compliment, and I have often been described as “too talkative” and thus “distracting” throughout my schooling career. Even with these tendencies, stepping into my host-home in Lushoto for the first time rendered me speechless. That’s simply the effect of living in a host-home: you are automatically the guest, the “other” – the cultural specimen. Now you represent yourself, your university – and in your host-family’s eyes – your country. Everything is new from the toilets to the kitchen to the electricity (or lack thereof) and even the chickens clucking around in the backyard. It’s all new and you must navigate this new space with grace and gratitude. It’s a tall-order for the student, who is probably only 19 or 20 years old. So in order to make this experience just that much smoother, here are my tips, tricks and insights into how best to navigate a foreign host-home.

  1. They don’t expect you to be a genius – Especially as Americans who “typically” spend little time learning foreign languages, your host-family will not expect you to be giving a dissertation in their native language. In my experience, my family was thrilled when I could string together even the most basic of sentences, boiling down complex situations into generalizations such as: “Most people…”; “Typically…”; “I like…” etc. Even just throwing out vocabulary like “table,” “education” or “sibling” (or asking about such words) will impress your host family and give them hope that Americans do, in fact, take the time to learn foreign languages.
  2. Hook onto the essentials – There will be words and phrases that are crucial that you nail down. For example, knowing how to ask for directions, telling time, and asking where the bathroom is. After a few days living with my host family, I still hadn’t showered. One aspect of this issue was that I didn’t think I needed one yet; the other was that I didn’t know what the word for shower was. When my host mom asked if I wanted to shower later that day, I gave an enthusiastic “ndiyo” (yes) and made a mental note of the verb “to shower”: kuoga. As an added benefit, I have not since forgotten that word, as it was so crucial to my life in Tanzania.
  3. Charades go a long way – In the episode of communicating my need for a shower, my host mom illustrated the otherwise unknown verb, “kuoga,” with vigorous scrubbing and imaginary water streaming from the space above her. Her movements made the question clear – “Do you want to shower?” Taking a cue from my host mom, don’t be afraid to add a little jig or some hand-motions to your conversation – you might feel silly, but you’ll be better understood and maybe even become closer to your host-family on account of your tom-foolery.

All in all, living with a host family during your time abroad is a sure-fire way to get the most linguistic improvement out of your study abroad. 10/10 would recommend. “Asante, kwa herini!” Thank you, goodbye all!

— Britt Boyle