Learning another language is a life goal for many travelers. For me, studying Spanish has become a lifelong quest–the next level always feeling a bit out of reach. Aside from the challenge of not having people to practice Spanish conversation with, learning a language as an adult comes with a lot of frustrating moments. Like realizing that the only Spanish you remember from high school–“My shirt is blue.”–is decidedly not going to help you figure out where this bus is headed. Or like the time an exasperated 5-year-old proclaims, “You don’t know ANY Spanish!” To which the only reply you can think of is: “Well…you don’t know any ENGLISH.”
There are lots of programs and apps designed to help you study, but nothing beats real world practice by doing a homestay. I get it, though… the thought of living in someone else’s home in a foreign country can be intimidating.
A week before I left for my study abroad semester in Costa Rica, I totally panicked. Whenever I went to the store or watched TV, I thought about how everything would soon be in Spanish. Like restaurant menus. Announcements at the airport. Directions on laundry detergent. (Would I need directions on laundry detergent?)
Immersion in another language and culture became overwhelming when I thought about the number of words I was surrounded with on a daily basis. In the end, that semester abroad brought tears, laughter, great conversations, exhaustion, and deep relationships. Most of all, it taught me that language has the power to connect us in deep and meaningful ways when we travel.
Here are a few reasons why a homestay is the perfect option to help you learn a language, experience a new culture, and travel more responsibly.
Make friends who live there
Living with locals naturally brings about deeper relationships than you’d have just interacting with people on the street. You have the opportunity to genuinely become friends–family, even–with people who call this place home. Not only does this enrich your travel experience, but you’ll also have people you can keep in touch with and perhaps even visit on your next trip there.
Travel deeper and live like a local
While I was studying abroad in Costa Rica, my host mom carefully showed me how to navigate the bus system during my first week there. She reminded me every morning to take my umbrella, and she worried about me whenever I got home late, as any mom would.
My host dad took me to the market for groceries, to the voting booth on election day, and to a parade on Independence Day. In Cuba, I fought my way onto a guagua (bus), sat on the malecón at sunset, and had a rooftop salsa party with Cuban friends from my host community.
But although I know it would take more than a few months to really know what it’s like to live there, homestays have given me a glimpse into the daily lives, routines, family dynamics, and cultural values of people who call those places home. Taking the time to travel slowly helps us experience daily life in a way that we never would by staying cocooned in a hotel room.
Get the inside scoop on the best things to do
You know all those places in your hometown that you think are the best? Ever noticed that they’re not packed with tourists? Locals always know the best spots to visit and which places are just tourist traps. Doing a homestay with a local lets you in on those off-the-beaten-path spots.
Gain a new perspective
Sharing a meal and going about daily life are the best ways to get to know people and their culture. This kind of interaction invites conversation and allows you to dig deeper than surface-level topics. One of my favorite quotes, paraphrased from Marcel Proust, sums up what getting to know locals has taught me: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” The perspectives I’ve gained from living with people have transformed how I see the world.
Travel more responsibly
Two main tenets of responsible travel are engaging with culture in a respectful way and supporting the local economy. Living with a local helps you become more culturally sensitive, and you’ll also be supporting your host with additional income.
Learn a language better
Most of us have heard that immersion is the best way to learn a language. We look at kids who move to another country and get plopped down into a classroom with everyone speaking a different language. They learn so fast! And nobody teaches them about verbs and nouns!
Linguists and psychologists have found that two things are essential for language learning:
- You need to take action and USE the language in real life situations.
- You can’t learn a language without other people. There are a few examples that you might have heard about in a Psychology 101 class that show this in both heartbreaking and fascinating ways: from children who grew up in the wild and were never able to learn complex language, to the invention of an entirely new language when deaf children in Nicaragua were taken out of isolation and brought together in a school that was just for deaf children. Language learning happens in the context of relationships and human interaction.
So…immersion seems like the best way to learn, right? Sort of. Language immersion works well for children, but most adults don’t learn language best simply by being immersed without having any background in the language. Adults need a combination of real world practice and language instruction.
Learn regional slang and vocabulary
If you’ve tried to learn Spanish and have visited more than one Spanish-speaking country, it’s likely that you’ve run into some frustrations. You’re not alone–a few years ago, a couple of guys who had traveled all over Latin America wrote a whole song about how hard it is to learn Spanish. Some words are innocent in one country and offensive in another. Even within the United States, slang and vocabulary vary wildly from region to region. Having a local who can help you understand those everyday phrases (and hopefully prevent you from accidentally cursing someone out) helps you in ways that textbooks will never be able to.
When you’re traveling cross-culturally, people in the host culture may not always be willing to correct you when you make an error or they don’t understand you. It might be highly offensive in their culture to correct a stranger’s grammar. But by doing a homestay, you’ll have someone who is comfortable and patient enough to teach you.
There are plenty of reasons to choose a homestay when you travel abroad. While staying in a hostel or hotel might feel less intimidating or challenging, it’s the slow road to learning another language. Living with a local lets you save money, experience a culture more deeply, and learn along the way.