The Advantages of Staying with a Homestay Family
A homestay family is a couple or a small family that you can stay with during your time abroad. Your university or work placement will most likely organise this program. You may be asked to participate in homestay to improve your language skills, make connections, experience the country's way of life, or all of the above. Homestay can last for anything from a few days to a few weeks, in most cases. Here's some reasons why, given the chance, you should choose to participate in a homestay program, with some examples of my experiences of staying with a family in the town of Itakura, in the Gunma prefecture, Japan.
Developing Language Skills
Hundreds of families participate in homestay programs all over the world. One of the most obvious reasons for joining a family for a few days in a foreign country is to improve your language skills. A classroom curriculum, homework and tests can only teach you so much - when you stay with a family, however, you'll be exposed to the language a lot more, and be encouraged to use it more naturally in everyday situations.
My Japanese homestay family didn't speak much English, so staying with them was excellent for developing my Japanese language skills, and practising what I knew. I could ask what the names of things were, practise grammar I'd learned in class, and be corrected in a way that wasn't by a teacher in front of other students. It made Japanese a lot more fun.
In addition, I could help the family with their English. Mama and Papa knew some English words, and their oldest daughter was studying English at school. It felt good that as well as improving my Japanese, I could help her with her homework and with grammar practice.
Seeing their Town/City
A great thing about staying with a family is that they'll most likely show you around their town or the surrounding areas. You may see parts of the country that you otherwise wouldn't have known about, off the beaten track and away from tourists. My homestay family took me to a small local festival hosted by my homestay sister's school. Needless to say, in their little town's school fair, there were no tourists. It was a sweet festival, with food and games and activities. We also made udon noodles in a small northern village, which was great fun - and we got to eat them afterwards!
We went to plenty of places by car; I was staying in Tokyo, where I always got the train to quite touristy places. Travelling by car was a whole new experience, where I saw some breathtaking scenery, like mountains and rivers. If I hadn't stayed with the family, I would have missed out on these experiences altogether.
See How a Family Lives
There's nothing like getting immersed in culture whilst you're abroad. In Tokyo, all the international students were together in the same building, so we only spoke English at home, ate western food and only really experienced Japan after we'd stepped outside. Staying with my homestay family showed me how a Japanese suburban family lives - I saw their beautiful house with a 'wet room', a tatami room, futons, ate Japanese food, studied with my homestay sisters, and got fully immersed in their Japanese way of life. It was an experience I just couldn't have inside a classroom surrounded by other 'foreign' (e.g. non-Japanese) students.
Eating Home Cooked Food
My homestay mother is an absolutely fantastic cook, although she won't admit it. Of course, you can sample local cuisine at a restaurant, but when it's home-cooked and you're eating it with a family in a relaxed dining room, it's a different experience altogether. I tried a variety of different foods cooked with love and care, including her own spin on traditional food, and things I hadn't even heard of. Mama gave us an amazing spread for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and really pushed the boat out for us. It was incredible. If you have the opportunity to do this, please do. Your homestay mother might just introduce you to food you didn't know you loved.
Establish Connections for Life
Making friends whilst abroad is one thing, but there's something stronger about having a homestay family. The family signed up for the program because they wanted to establish connections with international students who are interested in their country and language. Once you've stayed with a homestay family, keep in touch with them by email, Facebook, Skype, etc. You will always have them to chat to, practise the language with, and they will most likely let you stay with them if you end up visiting their country again.
If you want to go back to the country in the future, for example to work, your homestay family may also offer to help you with finding a job, a car, somewhere to live, etc. They'll be pleased that you like their country enough to go back, and be more than happy to help you out. This kind of assistance is invaluable, and well worth staying with a family for.
Most of all, staying with a family is great fun! Even though they didn't speak much English and my Japanese wasn't great, we still found lots to talk about. They took interest, asked lots of questions and made a huge effort to make my stay comfortable and enjoyable.
It's important to keep in mind that families wouldn't be accepted onto the homestay programs unless they could prove they were safe, trustworthy and hospitable. Therefore, you really have nothing to lose by staying with a famlily during your time abroad. I loved my family so much that after the placement ended I went to visit them several more times. It's definitely an experience that's worth going for. You might just discover that there's more to the country - and its people - than you thought.