The first 48 hours of your time abroad will probably be the most exciting of your entire stay. There is so much to discover, so much to explore, so much you don’t know about…These first two days are filled with emotions: you may be a little anxious and worry that your second language is not good enough. You may be struggling to fit in and overwhelmed by everything new you discover.
As my own day of departure for France drew near, I wondered what my upcoming trip would be like. I wanted to know what it is like to meet a complete stranger. I wanted to know what it would be like to speak French all day long. Most of all, I wanted to know what my host family would be like.
I hope to be able to help you answer these questions and ease a bit of your anxiety.
My own questions were as follows:
First of all, you probably won’t be meeting a complete stranger. You’ll be meeting someone you know is interested in getting to know you and your culture. You’ll also know that they’ll be friendly and welcoming- if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have signed up as host families in the first place. In addition, you’ll likely have communicated with them. I received an email from my host sisters a few days before departure- they responded to the letter I’d written for my application (I will note that this was the hardest part of getting to know my host family) and told me a bit about themselves. I learned, for example, that my host family has two cats and a dog, that they enjoy drawing, swimming, and reading. Even if you don’t have time to communicate with them, you will have received some information about your host family from Andeo.
You also need not fear that you won’t have anything to talk about with your host family- they’ll have lots of questions for you, and you probably will for them. Should you be in a situation in which you can’t think of anything to ask, ask them whether they like something you enjoy. You could ask, for example, whether they like playing basketball or whether their favorite subject is history. And then you can go from there.
Also, they won’t be strangers for long. After 48 hours, you will already know quite a bit about them, and they about you. You will be a welcomed guest. Soon you’ll find that you feel like a part of their family- trust me on that.
This was one of the most important questions for me. In my case, I was able to ask someone I knew had spent three weeks speaking a second language. She told me, verbatim: “It was very difficult the first few days, but later it was easy. I even dreamed in French by the end!”
I, personally, found speaking French all day exhausting- yet exhilarating. Yes, I was unable to say everything I wanted to say, and yes, I made mistakes, but that gets better. It soon became second nature-though I was still limited by my vocabulary.
Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes- just speak! Your host family will be proud of your efforts and will be happy to help. This also applies to someone you meet on the street. Once they find out that you are not from their country, but are making an effort to speak their language, they will be intrigued to get to know you and will help you if you get stuck. Tip: rudimentary sign language always works!
Don’t worry about saying something whose meaning ends up being different than you intended- it happened to me. I accidentally translated the English idiom “I’m dead” (as in exhausted) as “Je suis morte”, but that idiom doesn’t exist in French, so what I was saying was that I truly am dead. My host family helped me out, explaining that that can’t be as I am still alive, and that I should use “Je suis tres fatiguée” (I am very tired) instead. We had a good laugh about that!
Don’t be shy. If you don’t understand a word, ask. If you can’t think of a word, try to describe it or look it up. Expect to be frustrated, but be willing to learn from your mistakes. You can do it!
Even after 48 hours, you will notice your language skills improve. You’ll think of vocabulary faster, form sentences more quickly, and understand more of what is being said.
Everything and anything. It can be about you and your interests, what your host family is planning for the next day, something at work or school… the possibilities are endless…
Should you be faced with a conversation on politics, be careful what you say. Don’t say that you don’t like __, instead say that you wish they would do ___. Be assertive, but be considerate of the fact that you don’t know what they think and should thus try not to insult them by accident. Note that Europeans love discussions, though.
Exciting! Your host family will probably be proud to show you the area they live in. They may even take you on an excursion. However, this is at their discretion. Remember that you will learn as much in their home as in town.
As for culture, try to mimic what your host family does. I, for example, was not used to drinking my breakfast milk out of a bowl or spreading jam on a baguette with a spoon on a placemat, but I found it to be lots of fun. Take advantage of the fact that you can try something new when it’s perfectly normal. Try something out even if it doesn’t sound like you’ll like it.
I personally found meals to be the best part of the day- it was a time in which everyone came together to talk about their day. Dinners were very varied- once, there was ratatouille and steak, another time liver (though I could have eaten something else if I’d preferred), and a few times Chinese noodles prepared by one of my host siblings.
I suggest trying everything- even if it does not look appetizing. You may be surprised to find that you like it. However, if you dislike something, say it early in your stay- your host family is less likely to take offense as they are still getting to know you and will find it interesting, though possibly also somewhat disappointing.
If you have any “what if” questions, I suggest you try to ignore those; mine were unnecessary worries about things that never came to pass. For example, I wondered what would happen if I were to get lost, but someone always accompanied me. I also worried that I wouldn’t get along with my host family; this turned out not to be the case. The latter question will also most likely be answered within the first 48 hours of your stay.
A few more pieces of advice: Be courageous, and be yourself. No one will judge you on your language abilities; they’ll be impressed that you’re trying and happy to help you out.
Last of all, have a fantastic time. I already know that you will.