I was anxious, happy, terrified. That first meal was like a tennis match. I was trying so hard to translate in my mind as my host family spoke, and it was immediately overwhelming. My host father’s accent was so thick that, even though I could tell when he made a joke, I had no idea what he said. The gorgeous siblings were harping on each other the way that siblings do, and it was all I could do to eat my soup and try not to spill anything.
Three months after that first meeting, Josefina, my host mother, turns to me and says, “Do you remember when we first met and I asked you if you spoke Spanish, and you said a little? You lied.” She is teasing me as I’m sitting in her kitchen with my hands flying and her language falling off my tongue as I reenact some story about my day. My eyes widen and I stop mid-sentence. Her daughter Esther bursts out laughing and Josefina cackles and pats my shoulder, calling me “mija” or mi hija–my daughter. The pride in her voice confirms that choosing to live in a homestay in Spain was the best decision I’ve ever made.
What is a study abroad homestay?
A study abroad homestay is an incredible opportunity to experience a new country and a new culture in all of their glory.
When you choose homestays in Spain, you choose to completely immerse yourself in the day-to-day lives of people who call this foreign place their home. You will live in the home of a local family, and while you’re there, you will be forced (it’s great, we promise!) to speak the language, you will eat authentic home-cooked meals every week, and you will get to hear stories and experiences from your host family that will shape your perspective of your overall study abroad experience in Spain.
Nothing that I read in my textbooks could have prepared me for the immersion experience I had through my homestay in Granada. Living with a host family in Spain added an extra dimension to every day, and I fell hard for the country and my host family all at once.
Here are the top six reasons I recommend homestays to anyone planning to study abroad in Spain:
You may think you speak Spanish, but you do NOT. I double majored in business and Spanish in college, and I still wasn’t quite ready for the all day, every day, often heavily accented Spanish of Andalucia. My host family in Spain didn’t speak any English, and I often found myself explaining what I wanted to say by circling around a topic. That simple exercise alone increased my vocabulary as well as my confidence. My señora and my host family were easy going and would correct me, if I asked, and encouraged me when I did something well. If you don’t know what’s being said, ask! Slang and jokes are a big part of language, too.
I had learned long before I set foot in my señora’s home that the Spanish kitchen is a special place. After six months of Josefina’s cooking, I would call that an understatement. Although some host families in Spain do cook a bit differently for their students, my American roommate and I were always at the table like equals. In Spain, the midday meal is the largest and often involves a lot of people and a lot of food. In my opinion, this is tied with siesta for the best part of the day. Josefina asked us our favorites (croquetas) and went out of her way to bake a birthday cake, make mashed potatoes, and, more than once, make a spectacular paella the size of the dining room table.
If you’re like most students who study abroad, you’re ready for the experience, but your wallet may not be. One of the benefits of doing a homestay abroad is saving some cash. Think about it: in most situations your host mother will do your laundry, cook your meals, and clean your room. She’s doing the grocery shopping and you’re getting home-cooked meals several times a week. Make sure you have a full understanding of your program and what the host family is guaranteed to provide for you before you create your budget for study abroad.
Some students worry that a homestay abroad means giving up their independence and reverting back to that high school level of oversight. Not so! Many señoras have a few guidelines to live by: no overnight guests, no stumbling drunkenness, and to let her know if you plan not to come home. This is a bare minimum of respect for the woman taking care of you, not a prison sentence. Your host mother will gladly pack you a bocadillo (sandwich) and send you on your way for the weekend. She may also encourage you to get the heck out of the house if you’ve been lingering in your room on Skype for three days straight.
I took five classes when I was studying abroad in Spain, and I remember most of them because the professor was quirky, the class was extremely easy or hard, or the content was actually memorable. But I learned a heck of alot more by living in a second language outside the classroom. In the beginning, I spoke Spanish out of daily necessity: food, water, hygiene, and household stuff. The more I traveled and shared those experiences with my family, the more I learned about my language abilities and myself. Don’t just observe the lunchtime conversation—jump in! Even if you need a dictionary next to your plate, you’re making an effort, and that won’t go unnoticed.
Studying abroad is not easy. There are some days when you are desperate for home and creature comforts. I lost my grandmother while I was studying in Spain, and it was one of the hardest experiences of my life; but, my host mother was there for me in the way my own mother wished she could be, and for that I’m grateful. My homestay in Spain was a support system, a sounding board, a culinary school, and a language program all-in-one.
How to Pick a Program with Homestays in Spain
Take some time when you’re researching different homestay programs in Spain to make sure you are fully aware of what you’re signing up for and getting exactly what you need. Most study abroad programs in Spain will have the option, so give yourself the best experience possible by committing to a homestay abroad!
Four Popular Options for Spain Homestay Programs:
- AIFS Study Abroad in Barcelona - This program allows you to study humanities, business or the Spanish language in a university setting. You get the best of both worlds by having the option to study on a campus and then to take your skills home to your host family in Spain. The fun really never stops!
- AIFS Study Abroad in Granada - Choose from a variety of courses at the University of Granada and make sure to select a homestay! This program also offers extra excursions to nearby cities including Madrid and Seville, as well as a small trip to Morocco.
- ISA Study Abroad in Valencia - Study the Spanish language, culture, history, art, or literature at any one of the three available universities in Valencia. Even though you will be in classrooms with other North American students, your homestay will help you stay on track with your Spanish language immersion!
- CEA Study Abroad in Alicante - Study in this seaside city and choose from a variety of impressionable courses at the available universities. This city is your educational background and becomes even moreso when you select to do homestay!
No matter which study abroad program you choose, staying in a homestay in Spain will absolutely increase the overall experience of your Spain study abroad adventure ten-fold!
Bonus Tip! Gifts for Host Families in Spain
A great way to give back to the people who will be giving you so much during your time studying abroad in Spain is to bring a little piece of your home to theirs! While anything thoughtful is always acceptable, you can never go wrong with gifting something special to you. For example, some host family gift ideas include a regional book about your home (i.e. a Colorado Rocky Mountains picture book if you’re from Colorado) or a little treasure from a popular store you love. Other ideas include a picture of you and your host family or a small scrapbook/photo album of your time together. The point here is to be thoughtful when giving thanks to your host family. It doesn’t have to be expensive—get creative!
If you’re looking for a way to immerse yourself in your home away from home and push yourself on a daily basis, consider living with a host family in Spain. Keep in mind that the experience is a two-way street, and in order to get the most out of it, you’ve got to give as much as you get. Keep an open mind, be respectful, and be ready for the experience of a lifetime.