Survival Phrases for Your Homestay Family

Maple Buescher headshot
Maple Buescher
April 12, 2024

Survival Phrases for Your Homestay Family: A Dictionary for Study Abroad Students

One of the best and most exciting and fun parts of my semester in Spain has been living in a homestay. I was lucky to pick a program that offered the chance to live with a host family, and I was lucky that IES Abroad matched me with who I personally believe is the best host family in the program and placed me in a house constantly bursting with energy and joy.

It’s also been stressful and difficult and awkward. There are moments when I don’t know what to say, or when my eagerness to be a good guest gets me into a less-than-ideal situation. You should be kind and grateful to your host family, of course, but I’ve learned this semester that it’s just as important to be honest.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the course of my semester that you should be willing to say:

I don’t understand.

When to use: When you don’t understand.

At the beginning of the semester, eager to prove that I was in fact minimally competent in Spanish, I would try to plow through conversations even when I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what I was being asked or told. It led to some less-than-ideal understandings—once I told my host family that the Spanish university system seemed worse than the American one, and more than a few times I told them I liked foods when truthfully I didn’t understand the words and then had to eat such foods before I confessed to not being the world’s biggest fan of salmon or tuna.

The solution is simple: fess up when you don’t know something. “Sorry, I don’t understand” will save you a lot of trouble. And in most situations, a simple “Pardon?”—in Spanish, “Como?”—will suffice.

See also: I don’t know that word; Can you repeat that?

I don’t like that.

When to use: Politely, when you’re not a fan of something.

There’s a difference between being polite and lying when you’re not a fan of dinner. Living abroad, you’ll encounter foods, tastes, and textures that are unfamiliar, and you will inevitably be served something you don’t like. When that happens, you can tell your host family that the dish was obviously well-made, but you simply don’t like the taste of [insert food here]. Early on, I told my host family I liked every single thing they made, which led to those meals being served more often. They would not have been offended if I—sparingly, within reason— expressed my preferences, but I was too frightened to explain what I did and didn’t enjoy.

As the semester progresses, you will experience one of the greatest joys of meeting someone: being known. Your family will learn who you are and cook meals to your taste. (My host dad always scrambles my eggs, for instance, because he’s learned that I like those better; and my host sisters save me the last slice of tenderloin because they know it’s my favorite.) Help them along in this process, save yourself the awkwardness of not eating things you’ve said you liked, and own up to your preferences.

See also: No, thank you.

Can I come?

When to use: When you want to be part of the family.

As a college student, your host family will give you time and space for your own adventures. They know you’re an adult who has their own plans and goals for exploring a new city. But you can (and, in my opinion, should) seek opportunities to be part of family activities. Last week, I asked if I could accompany my host siblings to the giant outdoor Fiesta de la Resureccion, at which I met half a dozen young cousins, learned Spanish slang and pop songs, and picnicked on the ground. It was exciting, it was fun, and it felt great to be a part of the host family. Ask for the chance.

See also: What time should I be home for ____ ?

How do you _____?

You’re living in a foreign country. There will be things you don’t know how to do.

It feels awkward, being a college kid who can’t start the dishwasher, operate the microwave, or turn on the shower. But your host family knows that you’re foreign, not stupid, and they will be happy to help you—if you ask.

For instance, during my first week in Spain, I was served a plate of strawberries accompanied by a glass of water. “The water is for the strawberries,” my host mom told me. Everybody watched as I struggled to understand what I was supposed to do. Finally, totally bemused, I asked for a demonstration, and that solved all the problems in a heartbeat. (The water is to dip the strawberries to wash them off before you eat them, by the way.)

Another time, I noticed that my host siblings’ rooms had blackout shades, but all the pulling on cords in the world didn’t teach me how to lower mine. Eventually, in March, I asked how, and got the best sleep of my semester the next night. It was so worth the thirty seconds of embarrassment to ask how to use the blinds.

See also: What’s the word for ____?

I don’t believe you.

This is for those of you, like me, who live with little kids.

The confusing thing about talking to children is that sometimes you won’t understand them because you’re a student of their language, and sometimes you won’t understand them because they’re talking nonsense. My relationship with my seven-year-old host sibling got a lot smoother after I realized that she was often teasing me and stopped taking everything at face value. Her sister wasn’t actually about to go swimming with sharks. Four times one hundred is not one thousand. And you actually shouldn’t eat the plastic tinfoil wrappers on candy, even if a mischievous kid tries to tell you that it’s actually a common cultural ritual in your foreign country.

Living with my littlest host sister has been one of my greatest joys of this semester. She’s given me some of the candy and snacks she bought with her own money to let me try Spanish food. She’s showed me popular Spanish hairstyles. She’s taught me so many Spanish games and dances. She’s smart, funny, playful, and kind. And she’s also a seven-year-old who enjoys teasing and bantering. The first word I learned (indirectly) from her was joke.

Don’t take everything your youngest “siblings” say as the gospel. Learn to let them know that you know that you’re joking around—it makes the jokes more fun and less confusing. Be playful with your host siblings, and know that they’re often being playful with you!

Thank you.

When to use: Every time you can.

Say this a lot.

Living with a host family has been the best part of my semester. I have learned so many words, tried so many foods, watched so many movies, laughed so many times, and had so much fun with my host family. Being known and loved, protected and hosted, wanted and cared for in a foreign country is a gift. I am so grateful for what I have been given by my host family this semester. They are so lovely, so kind, just as all IES Abroad host families are. 

When you’re offered the choice, choose to live with a local family. Choose to be vulnerable and intimately known; choose to have “parents” and “siblings” abroad. Pick the challenge and the adventure.

And thank them a lot, too.

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Maple Buescher

Hi!! My name is Maple and I'm a junior at Bates College, where I am a member of the sailing team, the orchestra, and everything in between. I am the Editor in Chief of our student newspaper and am interested in pursuing a journalism career.

2024 Spring
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Political Science
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