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Livin’ La Vida Local: Spanish Immersion with a Host Family

different happy families

I arrived to Spain as a Meddeas Language Assistant, ready to give a hand teaching English in a Spanish school. For accomodation, I happened to stay with a Spanish host family that opened their arms and my hearts to me. Thanks to them, I got to experience a truly Spanish immersion. This is my story.

Landing in Madrid

It’s Wednesday 11th January 2017. I’m sitting outside Pozuelo (Madrid) train station on a concrete slab waiting for my host mum to pick me up, when I realize that we have no idea what each other looks like. I send a rather hurried email featuring a picture of my face and a brief Subject description along the lines of: “This is what I look like.”

Whether it’s the photo that leads her to me, or simply my indiscrete red hair, oversized backpack and garishly touristic money belt, I find myself heading towards the car and towards my new family. This is what my Spanish immersion experience looks like: I’m sharing the next six months of my life with mum, dad, five Spanish siblings (all between the ages of 6 and 12), a hopeless yet endearing Shih-tzu called Popi, and four hamsters. It’s a full house to say the least.

My Life Immersed in the Spanish Culture

Most of the time, I’m too busy to contemplate my own exhaustion. Waking up to a 7.00am alarm is a big enough change in itself for any long-established student; but waking up at 7.00am in a new bed, in a new country, with a new family, a new routine and a new work experience is a whole other story. 

A full day of teaching leads straight into a hectic extracurricular schedule. The mum drives laps around the suburbs of Madrid in what is effectively a minibus depositing my innumerable siblings to various activity sessions. I think she also has a day job, although I foolishly asked her about it while the radio was blasting in the car and I did not make out a word of her Spanish response.

In hindsight, I should have simply said: “Sorry, I didn’t quite hear you.” Instead, I panicked and said “Oooh, how interesting;” so I still have no idea what she does and it is definitely too late to ask again. I’m sure she thinks it is very rude that I do not inquire about her work, but I try to make up for it by emptying the dishwasher regularly and drawing sketches of dragons for her children.

English Language Assistant with her host Spanish siblings
Spending fun time at home with my Spanish host siblings.

The Typical Day with a Spanish Host Family

Anyway, a typical evening living with my Spanish family goes something like this:

Pick two up from karate. Drop two more off at karate. Drop one to a guitar lesson, another to a math tutor, and another to Afterschool Club; where I pass an hour or so baking brownies with a crowd of six-year-olds. It’s 9 pm before we’re home, 10 pm before there’s any mention of dinner, and 11 pm before I get a chance to stand still, breathe and perhaps wash myself.

So yes, as you can imagine, the assimilation process into a family is draining. You have to be endlessly enthusiastic and adaptable. You have to be consciously considerate. And you have to be equipped to cope with a 5-year-old stealing your precious coloured pens and raiding your emergency Dairy Milk and Ginger Nut supply.

The biggest challenge of the Spanish immersion for me, however, is constantly negotiating that tricky position of being stuck somewhere between child and parent. One minute you’re a confidante to the kids and the next, to their horror, you have betrayed them for the role of babysitter, dictating that they brush their teeth and turn off Lego Batman.

All in all, I’m fumbling through, mimicking their lifestyle, and trying to figure out where I fit into it. Of course, I have messed up along the way. I tried to cook with them on Pancake Day and ended up scraping a rather expensive pan; I bought one of the kids a painting kit for her birthday and now there are neon pink splatters all over the ceiling; and when I took the dog for a walk, it came back with a limp (I swear, I didn’t do anything to it).

3 Perks of Living with a Host Family

But somewhere amid all the disasters, I think I’m doing ok. And besides, these minor stresses are really a small price to pay for the wealth of value you can gain from “livin’ La Vida Local:”

1. For someone whose culinary repertoire consists of bacon, fried eggs and pasta, the endless stream of free home cooking is a huge benefit.

2. I learn so many things about Spanish culture that I would never learn outside of a family context. For example, did you know that, instead of the tooth fairy, Spanish children wait for the tooth rat? They don’t seem to be at all freaked out at the prospect of a mouse furrowing under their pillow and stealing their teeth.

3. In terms of Spanish language learning, neither of my host parents speaks English so I have authentic conversation classes at my disposal every day; instead of being a mere option, practising Spanish is a daily obligation. So, if you’re looking for a real language immersion in Spain, this is the way to do it.

When My Real Parents Met My Host Parents

My most enjoyable linguistic challenge to date was whenever my actual parents (who speak no Spanish) came for dinner with my host parents (who, as I said, speak no English). After practising with my dad for thirty minutes on the way there, we had only managed to nail down “Encantado” (pleased to meet you) so I didn’t have high hopes for the evening ahead.

However, with some over exuberant body language and flawless Spanglish on their part (such as “gracias very mucho”); plus the help of my translation service and several gin and tonics, I would go as far as to say that they had formulated some sort of friendship by the end of the night. Unfortunately for me, it was largely founded on conversation about how disorganized I am and how much food I eat.

Spanish Host Family
My real parents meet my host parents.

The Precious Chaos of the Spanish Immersion

But the best part of Spanish family life for me? It is never predictable.

Under what other circumstances would you arrive home from work to become embroiled in a Nerf gun battle? To open a “pet shop” of origami animals? I have learnt everything there is to know about dinosaurs, I have been inaugurated as official co-owner of the extensive family mineral collection, and I have been gifted a ginormous bear called Manolo to keep me company down in the basement (or did I kidnap him? That one is up for debate).

Yes, sometimes I wish for nothing more than to withdraw into a dark apartment with takeaway pizza and Sherlock. Yes, sometimes I just want to stare at a wall and think of anything but children. Sure, it’s chaos…

…but it’s my chaos; a chaos borne from the precious exchange of language, perspectives and time in one another’s company. To have it anything other than chaotic would be to sacrifice the very richness of the experience.

Part of our space station craft project.

A Home away from Home

So I understand that it may not sound like your cup of tea (unless your cup of tea is full of children and stuffed animals), but I promise that the high pace of life in a Spanish family becomes infectious.

For the most part, you get out what you put in.  So I am a climbing frame, a piggy-back giver, an artist-on-demand. I spend my Tuesday nights cleaning out hamster cages and my weekdays creeping around the school bathrooms collecting empty toilet roll tubes, so I can take them home for our space station craft project.

In return, this family has opened their door and their hearts to me, not to mention their fridge. They have been honest and welcoming and I will never be able to repay them for giving me a home away from home.

For more information on Meddeas Language Assistant Programs living with a host family, check out this video:

6 Responses

  1. I love reading about people’s experiences living with a host family as mine is very different as I chose independent housing. I feel envious reading about how close people become with their host families. Thanks for sharing, Jessica 🙂

  2. This was so endearing to read! I’m so glad this experience has been such a memorable and great one! I have never lived with a host family, though I’ve lived with Spanish roommates. It’s definitely a bit daunting having to speak in Spanish ALL OF THE TIME, with no rest. But it does wonders to your Spanish language learning. I can only imagine how much more immersed you were than I living with a family than only with roommates. I definitely do see the great thing about constantly learning about the Spanish culture. That is one thing I think I am lacking at times and I think would have really enriched my experience! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I don´t live with a host family but it really does sound like a memorable and enriching experience! I love your wording of “precious chaos” in Spain. I totally agree! Sometimes I feel like I fit more into one day in Spain than I ever did into one week at home in the UK!

  4. The line I agree with the most from this article is: ”You get out what you put in.” If you hide in your room all day, you will definitely have trouble connecting with them. If you actively make an effort to play with the kids, help with homework and make memories with the family, it can be super rewarding. Thanks to my host family, my Spanish has improved leaps and bounds. I’ve gone on trips with them, learned how to make Spanish food, and played far too many games of the card game Uno to count, but my time spent with them has been unforgettable. Though it can be chaotic, a bit of a loss of freedom, and difficult at times (with language barriers or depending on how far away they live from the city center/school), the experience is so worth it.

  5. Great article, it’s interesting to hear about people’s experiences living with host families! It sounds so chaotic and of course scary at first but it’s a great method of immersion and a lot of people make bonds for a lifetime. This is an experience I’d love to have but I am living independently in Spain, as I’m a vegetarian and I was told that it would be the best option for me and I actually agree. I like having my own space, also. However, I am lucky as I am living with 2 Spanish people at the moment and therefore still get to immerse in Spanish culture and language while also having my own space. I’ve joined a dance class full of only Spanish people too and for me that’s a form of immersion as I am speaking Spanish with them, getting to know them and I feel a part of a family (similar to how I feel at my school).

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