When you’re a student going abroad to France, you will likely have the option to stay with a host family. Naturally, life with a family (someone else’s family, at that!) comes with its pros and cons. I happened by sheer luck to have a wonderful, almost idyllic experience with my host family. Others I knew did not fare so well. One girl’s family, a Dickensian horror, refused to feed her. Another lovely clan I heard about was none too thrilled to host an Indian student. Fortunately, these experiences are not necessarily typical; the spectrum of experiences is broad.
Based on my own experience, I wholeheartedly recommend staying with a French family, for the language, the immersion, the culture, and—most of all—the small, anxiety-ridden dachshund who will appoint herself your protector. Of course, your own mileage may vary, but I hope it doesn’t.
To make this decision whether or not a host family is right for you, let us examine the
PRO: You will receive total, 100% immersion in the language.
CON: The language will be French. (Just kidding, sort of.) When you first arrive, you will indeed be in over your head. I remember early conversations sounding like this:
HOSTESS: Pass the fffffffffff.
HOST: Would you like some ffffffff?
ME: Oui, la ffffffffff.
Until one day, something clicked, and suddenly I spoke in eager, fluid French. I was delighted, and said a string of enthusiastic French things to my hostess. She looked at me kindly, and then said—and I shall cherish these words forever—”Well, Nicola, I’m not sure I understood any of that.” It was a proud moment.
PRO: You will be the reigning authority of the English language.
CON: You will be the reigning authority of the English language, and at some point, someone will ask you something you just don’t want to answer. In my case, they asked me how to say péter in English (answer: “fart“). I totally understood what they were asking, but for some reason I wasn’t 100% sure in that moment, and, being in the hot seat, I kept demurring and getting awkward. Then everybody laughed really hard while I tried to vanish into the tile.
PRO: While you are learning to be French, your host family will feed you all sorts of yummy French food.
CON: Your cholesterol levels will also learn to be French.
PRO: Your host family will be able to act as your guides to the city. In your first, discombobulating days in a foreign land, there’s no substitute for living among local, all-knowing folks who can tell you les essentiels, such as where to go to get your déodorant.
CON: You have no idea what they are actually suggesting. During my earliest foreigner days, my host folks said that I could find some needed item at a place called “Havre-Caumartin.” This makes perfect sense to me now, but at the time, I heard it as an impossible jumble of sounds and letters. How I eventually found my way there is still a mystery to me, but I assume I went up to the métro ticket window and said in flawless French, “I should like to go to the impossible jumble of sounds and letters, please.”
PRO: You will become part of family life, including impassioned dinner table conversations about television, or nationalities, or nothing. In this particular family, semi-ferocious dinner arguments somehow ended in gales of laughter.
CON: Sometimes, semi-ferocious arguments do not end in gales of laughter, and instead end in fully-ferocious arguments. For you, this will just be awkward.
PRO: On the macro-level, you will form ties to your family—and, by extension, to la belle France itself, because your memories will forever unite one with the other.
CON: On the micro-level, you will—assuming you live with my particular host family—live with an extremely codependent dog, who each day, when her master goes to work, believes she has been abandoned. She laments loudly for the next 8 hours, and your only recourse is to drive a pencil through your own skull—until the moment her master returns, when she goes berserk with joy. Your memories will also associate this with France. It’s unavoidable. Your family and France will become so much a part of you, it will just about break your heart to say goodbye to both. And, yes, also to the dog.