As an EFL teacher in Malta, I hear many horror stories about students and host families. One student’s host family got really mad at her because she got sick drinking the Maltese water. The family members said the water was filtered and she shouldn’t have gotten sick. When she bought bottled water, they were so insulted they wanted her to leave their home. Another student in a different situation discovered that her room was so tiny that she had to enter the room by crawling on the bed (the bed took up the entire room).
I also hear wonderful stories from students who have lived with host families who have welcomed them and treated them so well that they stay in touch forever after the student goes back to his/her own country.
If you’re planning to live with a host family abroad while you travel or study, here are some tips to find a decent one:
1. As with everything, your best bet is to get a recommendation from a satisfied customer. In this case, this would be a student who had been happy with a host family he/she had lived with while studying abroad. Ask to contact the host family. The best way is probably by a simple email introducing yourself. Find out if the family is available during the time you will be abroad. Always tell the host family who referred you.
2. If you use an agent to book your language school abroad, ask the agent to find out if and how the host family is licensed. There should be some indication that the host family is inspected. Don’t sign up with a host family that merely…signed up.
3. Ask to speak to the housing department of the language school you are planning to attend. Find out if there have been any complaints lodged against the family. If there are problems, the school should let you know because problems like these usually recur with students; they don’t disappear.
4. Ask the school to put you in touch with the host family when you are assigned to one. Again, try to be in contact before you arrive. Briefly tell the family about yourself. After all, the host family members need to know something about you as much as you would like to know something about them. See if they respond to your initial email, and then ask a few questions. You may want to know about:
-How close is the host-family home to the language school you’ll be attending?
-How many students will be residing there at the same time as you? And how many students will share your room?
-How large will your room be? Some host families have tried to pass off boxrooms as student bedrooms. Boxrooms are large closets or storage areas, often without windows.
-If it’s the summer, find out if you will have a large fan in your room. Most Maltese don’t use air conditioning.
-If you come in the winter, you’ll be shocked to find out how cold it is inside the homes because there is no central heating. Find out how you will keep warm–gas or electric heaters? Extra blankets? Some students reported sleeping in their coats at night.
-Will there be animals or small kids/babies in the house? You might want to turn down a place like that.
-Find out–somehow–what kind of food the family serves students. Some eat great meals with the family. Other families serve the students pasta every night and then eat another meal separately from the students. Many students complain of being hungry. If you have special dietary needs, let the family know this now so they can prepare for you. Or figure out how you will supply your own food.
Of course, there’s only so much you can do to prepare for living with a host family. The right chemistry and a lot of luck helps–and that’s something you have no control over. If you like your experience with your host family, it’s nice to buy a small gift at the end for them. If you don’t like your experience and you feel the family has been negligent, speak up in time to change host families–or at least prevent that family from receiving another student the next time around.
Ilene Springer lives and teaches EFL in Malta, and is author of An-American-in-Malta.com.