Your First Conversation with Your Host Family
I remember the day I received my Spanish host family placement as if it were yesterday. My study abroad program didn’t supply us with our placements before arriving. Instead, we were picked up at the airport by program staff and whisked away to a two-night orientation at the university before meeting any of our families. On the final day, we received a slip of paper with the name, address, and basic information about our families. It was exciting, but a bit anti-climatic as that piece of paper seemed so insufficient in terms of everything I wanted to know about the people I would be living with for the next five months.
Finally, they gathered all of us into an auditorium room and had us sit and wait for our host families to collect us, one by one. It was nerve-wracking but exciting. After having read and seen The Hunger Games, there’s a part of me that feels like the experience was similar to the lottery drawing. We all sat and waited for our names to be called, albeit with nerves out of excitement rather than fear. The wait seemed almost unbearable, but finally my name was called and I was immediately pulled into my first set of dos besos and sincere hugs from Spaniards. Then, in an instant, I was escorted away to my 'host sister’s' car with the women I would go on to call mamá for the rest of my time in Alicante. My new family…of complete strangers!
Arriving at mamá’s apartment remains a blur in my mind. The topics of intermittent conversation have completely escaped me. What I can’t forget, however, is sitting down on our living room couch to our first real conversation and feeling, admittedly, a bit unprepared. In sharing my experience, however, you will hopefully not have the same stress.
As expected, my host mother did not speak a word of English and so we communicated completely in Spanish. Despite my intermediate level, she was extremely patient. I think we forget that host families are going to be great at this—they are used to hosting foreigners! She asked me about my family and my hometown. She asked me how long I’d been studying Spanish and why. She asked me why I had chosen Alicante for my study abroad semester and if I had even been to Spain or Europe before.
Then she got into questions that I, arguably, should have been expecting but I hadn’t and therefore I got a little flustered while answering. What did I usually eat for breakfast? What was my favorite food? Did I have an allergies? Was there anything I specifically didn’t like to eat? Did I know my class schedule? Would I need her to pack me a lunch or would I be home for comida? So many questions!!!
Of course, these also came after 10 minutes of other topics and I have to admit that I wasn’t so prepared at the time to carry on conversations in Spanish. I’ll never forget how I answered her inquiry into foods I don’t like: For whatever reason, I couldn’t remember the word for 'seafood' so I told her that I don’t really like fish and…other things from the water…things that have eyes. She must have gotten a great chuckle out of that answer, but she didn’t let on. Instead, she offered up the correct word I was missing (mariscos). It was what I now look back on as an embarrassing moment, but the reality was that it was all just fine and she never served me anything with eyes so that was an overall success!
If you’re especially nervous about that first conversation and making a good impression, my advice is two-fold. First, consider your answers to the questions I listed above and anything else about your lifestyle and routine that you think your host family might need to know right away (i.e. being vegetarian, vegan, or Celiac). If you have someone you feel comfortable with, take some time to practice this conversation in Spanish before you meet your family. However, on the other hand, rest assured that your host family isn’t going to expect you to speak like Cervantes on your first day in their home and they absolutely won’t think less of your if your answers are unprepared or (as in my case) a little silly. The fact that you’re even contemplating these moments before you arrive shows that you’re on-top-of-the-game and I, for one, have faith that that first conversation will go just fine for you, too!