Ideally, host families and their exchange students have relationships built on open communication and honesty. But sometimes, coming into a new host family’s home can cause students to feel unsure about how to approach unfamiliar or confusing situations. Add in a language barrier and cultural differences, and sometimes the communication breakdown is hard to mend!
Many exchange students will go for weeks and even months before saying what’s really on their mind — and sometimes, they’ll never completely divulge their innermost hopes and fears. In order to help host families decode what’s really going on with their exchange students, we’ve gathered some advice that exchange students want their host families to know.
1. “We don’t always understand the rules.”
Exchange students understand that there will be new rules when they arrive in their host family’s home. Part of the experience is learning to do things differently, and students are almost always willing to do what is asked of them.
However, sometimes students need a little extra help understanding the “why” behind the rules. When it comes to things like curfews, chores, and expectations about new friends, students may need extra help understanding why certain rules are put in place.
Here’s a tip: Write down house rules on a piece of paper, and have them ready for your student when they arrive. Allow your student some time to read them and think about questions they have. After they’ve settled in, sit down and talk about each rule — and answer any questions your student might have.
Remind your student that they can ask questions whenever they come up. It’s important that students feel they are able to ask when they feel unsure!
2. “Don’t be afraid of awkward silences… we just need time to think!”
Even if a student has studied English for many years before arriving in the United States, adjusting to a new language full-time is emotionally and mentally difficult. Sometimes students need a few extra seconds or minutes to think something through.
Americans are often tempted to fill awkward silences with more questions. When a student is thinking through what they’d like to say, however, these questions can quickly turn into information overload!
Here’s a tip: After asking a question, wait at least a few moments before asking another. If it seems like your student is struggling to find the right words, be patient. Sometimes it takes time to “switch over” to thinking in another language (and that makes listening and understanding difficult).
If there is a significant language barrier, try writing down questions when confusion sets in. Sometimes students are better at reading than listening, and this can help iron out confusion and frustration.
3. “Sometimes we just need a time out.”
Learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture can be tiring. Just like doing jumping jacks makes people feel physically tired, speaking in a different language can leave students mentally fatigued. Consequently, exchange students who are dealing with a bigger language barrier may need to sleep more in order to “bounce back” after a long day of speaking English.
While it’s a good idea to encourage social engagement with the host family, exchange students sometimes hit a mental wall that leaves them irritable, exhausted and more emotional than usual.
Here’s a tip: If you think this might be happening with your exchange student, consider giving them a “time out” to recuperate and recharge. You can set ground rules for these “time outs”, which might include no cell phones or lengthy conversations with friends back home. Remember to talk to your student about what they might need in order to conserve energy and adapt to their new language.
4. “Homesickness is always harder than we expect.”
Exchange students are always well-versed in what to expect when homesickness sets in, but it’s almost always harder than they expect. Most students have never spent significant amounts of time away from their family, much less in a new country.
Consequently, students may fall back into old patterns when homesickness sets in. The temptation to talk to family and friends back home will be almost impossible to resist!
Here’s a tip: When your student is in the throes of homesickness, patience is key. You might think rigid rules are the only way to help your student cope, but this is not always the case. Talk to your student about what they are feeling, and how you can help. They want to feel comfortable in their host country just as much as you do, so don’t be afraid to troubleshoot the problem together.
5. “No matter how hard culture shock is, reverse culture shock is harder!”
What few exchange students anticipate is how difficult reverse culture shock can be. When it comes time for your student to return to their home country, there will be plenty of mixed emotions: excitement, relief, sadness, and uncertainty.
Don’t be surprised if your student starts reaching out to your family only days after they’ve returned home. Once the “honeymoon period” has worn off, they’ll be missing American culture more than they realized they would!
Here’s a tip: Plan a few Skype sessions in the weeks and months after your student returns home. This will help ease some of the fear that comes with returning to their home country.
If your student doesn’t stay in touch with your host family after they’ve returned home, try not to take it personally — every student deals with the ups and downs of cultural change differently, and it may not have anything to do with their opinion of you!