Taking strange kids into your home has got to be rough. It disrupts your schedule, it places a person you can’t communicate well with in your life, and you have to cook and clean more. Being a homestay family isn’t easy. And I’m so grateful that my “mom” has kept me fed and patted my back when I threw up and all sorts of other grandmotherly things. Seriously, my hat is off to you brave folks.
Being an international student isn’t easy either–adjusting time zones, a different culture, a different language, and wondering “is my family different, or is the culture different?” takes up a lot (and I mean A LOT) of energy.
So if you’re taking a foreign language student into your home, and you know they’re not fluent, I have a few tips that might help you understand what is going on with them.
1. Always, always face them when you talk. It is really hard to understand muffled voices when heads are turned or people are in another room.
2. Speak slowly. I can’t over emphasize this. Whenever anyone begins speaking to me, I always say, “Slower, please. Slower, please.” Sometimes the people listen and sometimes they don’t. But I am always very grateful to the people that have the patience to slow down their speech for me.
3. Tell us your funny stories. But enunciate clearly. Nothing makes me feel left out quite as much as everyone at the table laughing at a hilarious work story when, in the excitement, everyone spoke fast that I couldn’t understand but one or two words through the whole telling. There’s one “sister” of mine that will repeat the stories at a much slower pace specifically for me, and I can’t even tell you how grateful I feel to be included and helped at the same time.
4. As a good rule of thumb, if we aren’t near fluent, and we can’t see your mouth, we won’t understand you. This kind of goes back to number one. I have a hard time understanding people when they talk with food in their mouths, put their hands over their mouths, or yawn while talking. Of course, that last one is hard in your own native language.
5. Correct us gently. We want to learn, so we don’t mind correction. But laughing at our mistakes, even if it isn’t mean-spirited, gets old really fast. I’ve been laughed at a lot here. And while it is good to put my ego in it’s place, after a time it makes me insecure of my language skills and get so worried about making a mistake that I don’t want to try. Also, when I ask, “how do you say…?” and get a three sentence long answer, it doesn’t help. I just need the phrase all by itself, or I will become more confused.
6. Don’t try to speak over the truck driving past. Wait. It’s not that we don’t know the words you’re saying. It’s just that our ears aren’t used to picking up those sounds in that order. While I might be able to continue to understand a conversation in English with a friend because I’m intimately familiar with the syllable placement and context, I won’t be able to in Spanish. At least, not for a long while yet. So if the noise is going to pass, just wait and save us both the frustration of mis-communication.
7. Stay patient with us. We realize that it’s really frustrating to be misunderstood. Or ignored. Or stared at with glazed expressions. Having an international student disrupt your life is inconvenient enough, and having one that doesn’t understand what you say is harder. But I promise you, we are more frustrated than you. You are misunderstood by one person, while we have difficulty expressing ourselves to everyone we meet. I had one woman roll her eyes obviously when I asked her for a second time to speak slower, and it made me angry because I was trying really hard to understand her and I already felt like an idiot. I didn’t need her to confirm that for me.
The people in my life in Nicaragua that have shown extraordinary amounts of patience for me and enunciated their words have my everlasting gratitude, and they are the ones (outside the language school) that helped me learn the most.
These are just a few tips that I’ve come up with during my time as a foreign language student. But each person is different, and each family and culture are different. So these can be used as guidelines, not hard and fast rules.
What are some things you would suggest?