In most study abroad programs, living with a host family is a huge part of the overall experience. Not only can they help you learn about your culture, but they feed you, help you get around and can help you find the city’s hidden gems. But with a language barrier, or for someone who’s shy, it can be difficult to adjust to living with a stranger (or multiple strangers), especially in a completely different country. In the days I’ve been spending with my host mother and roommate, and hearing about others’ experiences with theirs so far, I’ve discovered a lot of great ways to communicate and open up—even if you’re not on the same linguistic page.
Luckily for me, my host mother knows English pretty well and also helps me learn Italian by speaking to me in sentences including both. For others, the transition hasn’t been quite so simple. If neither of you can speak each other’s language, there are still ways to communicate. Keep a pocket dictionary or phrase book with you. It might be annoying to look up everything you want to say, but it’s even more annoying to not be able to say anything at all. By the end of the summer or semester, you should have at least some words down pat, and conversation will be a breeze.
While you’re learning to speak in a new language, you can also learn to gesture a lot while you speak (if you don’t already). Pointing, nodding, smiling, etc. can all go a really long way in the absence of words. Sometimes you and your host family might not always understand the whole intended message, but again, some effort is better than none at all. It can even be helpful to write a few words down from a dictionary, so even if you don’t know how to pronounce them yet (something your host can help with), you can at least hold up the words for them to read. You can also attempt to help your family with English as well, by saying the words they are acting out. A few words and lots of gesturing can make for a great conversation!
In addition to language, some people find it difficult to fit into their families or talk freely with them. You don’t have to share your whole life story, just little details. If they have a dog and you have a dog, make a comment and maybe add a story about your dog they’d understand or appreciate. Compliment their cooking or ask them about a trinket you noticed on the TV stand. You can easily keep your personal life private while still getting to know your family and get along with one another. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or just talk about how classes are going. As time goes on, you’ll all feel more comfortable around each other and get alone just like a real family (hopefully anyway).
Just relax and remember to give yourself time to adjust. It’s a new situation, a new environment and all new people, so it’s ok to feel out of your element—that’s part of the fun of studying abroad! Put yourself out there, try to make yourself feel at home and never be afraid to speak up. Even if you have a negative comment to make, like if they make something you can’t eat for whatever reason, mention it to them. Your host family is like your adopted family for the time you’re in this new country, so take advantage of what these relationships have to offer. Above all else, traveling the world, whether for school or independently for fun, is an amazing learning and growing experience. So, push yourself out of your comfort zone, try new things and reach out to your family in whatever way you can to help you through the adjustment. You’ll be glad you did.