For the first time in HLT's six year existence STUDENT VOICES in this issue speak about the complexity of entering a new family in a an unknown country. It is odd that the "host family" is so little discussed in the literature on language learning, even though most EFL teachers in places like Eire, UK, USA, Australia etc have vague intimations that their students are learning huge amounts in the mornings, the evenings and at the weekend and that their learning/acquisition is somehow different from what goes on in class.
Many EFL teachers from across the EU have memories, fond or otherwise, of host families they were once billeted with in places like UK, Eire or the USA.
Listen to these two, young voices:
(At the time of the interview 18 year-old Lorenza had been in UK just over a year, and she was planning on staying until the following June. Her host family consisted of two retired primary school teachers and their absent daughter who has multiple sclerosis.)
When a student goes into a host family she needs to be adaptable. When I first got here in October there was a girl who went through six families in three months. It's not very nice when the family takes in a student just for the money. You feel like a stranger in the family and that's very...very bad. After a time, if you establish a good relationship with the people in the family, you don't bother if the house is not that good, if you feel cold, if they don't feed you well.
When I got here I didn't know a word of English and the landlord was very patient with me. I meant to stay here just three months but then I decided to carry on and take the Cambridge First Certificate. He and his wife were very pleased. When June came, the exam month, it seemed this would be the end of my stay and when I left they were in tears....it was very.....I didn't feel upset as I knew I could come back and see them again.
He was particularly sad and when I said goodbye, he just turned away, to hide his feelings.
While she is mad keen on bridge and often out, he is alone at home most of the time. You could say that he lives in a world of his own. He reads books and watches television. He never wants to watch the news on television because he says it's too sad and he has plenty of time to read the newspapers in the daytime.
Her relationship to him is interesting. She always tries to show him in a good light. If, for example, she tells him: 'You ought to do this,' and he forgets, she says: 'we didn't do this, that or the other'. He's older than she is and when we go out I always feel better when she drives. She insists on letting him drive when there are other people around. If they need to paint a room in the house she does everything because he can't; he's too weak. Then she says: 'we've done the room'. She must love him very dearly.
He's affectionate. He'll come home and put his arms around my shoulders. But she doesn't. She writes all those nice things at Christmas time saying I'm a daughter to them and that they are very glad to have me in the house but she tries to keep her distance.
When she's not in he tells me things I wouldn't ask about and which he wouldn't mention when his wife is there. For example, he told me he had been married once before, that his first wife had died......She has never mentioned this. He tells me about things that happened during the war - all these are things he likes to talk about when she is not around.
I have a very good relationship with them both. They treat me as a member of the family and they certainly trust me. They've been away on holiday twice and both times they left me the house and the cat. I babysat the cat, though I didn't worry about it as much as she does.
They will always try and involve me in what they are doing.Well, for example, yesterday evening I came back and she was scrubbing the floor to get it clean and I asked: 'May I help you?' She was down on her knees and she's about fifty, fifty five. I came down in jeans and a little tee-shirt but she didn't want me to help at all. She said: 'It's awfully nice of you........but I've almost finished..' She hadn't almost finished - she had half the floor still to do. I don't know why she reacts like this. She lets me wipe up the dishes after a meal or lay the table. I clean my own room.
I have a strong relationship with the daughter in London. When I leave to go back to Italy she comes down a couple of days before and we spend time together. She writes to me. She is pleased that I like her family. But it's different with the mother. She doesn't want to get too attached to me. She doesn't want me to take her daughter's place.
My feelings towards them
I'm not that attached to them. When I went back to Italy on holiday each day I promised myself that I would write to them and each day put off writing! My thinking about them became so obsessive that my dreams were full of them all night. In the end I had to write this letter because I felt very bad...because I like them...... I like them. It's hard, sometimes because if people are very important to you, you feel you ought to write letters saying important things. It's rubbish - I find I write letters to other students saying very simple things and that's fine.
Losing the House
A thing that really shocked me was that last week, in three days, they took the decision to sell the house and to go and live in Stratford. Their daughter can't afford to get a house in London and houses here are very expensive as well. They reckon that by selling this house they will be able to buy two houses in that area.
They've......they took just three days to decide. I thought; 'perhaps next year'. Two days later I got back from school and saw the FOR SALE notice up outside the house and now there are always people coming and going, viewing the house. It's terrible, because I consider this my house in England. I will feel very bad if I come back here and see that the house is being lived in by other people I don't know.
They have just changed the front door and the landlady told me that her daughter's boyfriend wrote this message on a little piece of paper: 'Mary, David and Amanda have lived in this house very happily for twenty years'. When he hung the new door he fixed this piece of paper in behind the new lock. She said that when the door is replaced one day, some one will find the message. It's very strange.. it means that they......I'm very sad: it's as if my house were on sale.
Now that she's selling the house my landlady seems very distant. There is an odd atmosphere in the house. I don't like it. She says she can't bear the house any more. She's looking for things that are wrong with it, to justify the move. So she says: 'I've never liked the rooms upstairs because of this, that and the other...the bathroom is too small.' She homes in on the defects. Only the garden is safe from her; the garden is the best part of the house. She will just miss the dining room and the garden!
The English family is completely different from my own family in Italy. I have come to like this family and the English way of living so much that, sometimes when I think of the normal things I do back home, I feel bored.
I went back to Italy for two weeks, just recently. I missed little things like waiting at the bus stop, the ordinary things that you do here. When I was there I would think: 'It's six o'clock, now people in Cambridge are taking the bus...it must be cold.' My mind was partly in England. Not that there wasn't plenty to do in Italy. My mother kept telling me:
'You have to do this - you must do that...you really must take granny to see our relatives..'
Our neighbour had a heart attack while we were there, so I had to ferry his wife to hospital twice a day. When you go home you find all these things happening.....the neighbour who had a heart attack.....everything seems terrible......
In a sense coming back here is a way of avoiding reality. This village has a very special atmosphere. I like it a lot, especially the church. I don't know why, it's very peaceful, a very strange atmosphere when it's foggy.
Ways I've changed
I used to be very unsure of myself, very insecure. I didn't like secondary school - I had a terrible relationship with the teachers. It made everything very difficult. If you don't have a good atmosphere with these people you are with most of the time....it's not very nice. I was really pleased to leave school. I didn't know what to do then, as I hadn't been much good at school, so I decided to learn English.
When I came here I didn't come just to learn the language. I came because I need to get away from my own reality. My mother had a terrible opinion of me. She didn't like....for her I was a sheet...I was nothing. You see I couldn't get her to understand anything about me. I wasn't the best student in the class, I was always arguing with the teachers, I wasn't happy in myself. She noticed that I was very unsure of myself. Even when I went to buy a jumper, say, and it came in two different colours, I spent ages deciding which to choose.
Now she sees that I am more self-confident. I have really changed a lot over the year. It's difficult for people here to see the change but the people who knew me before do see it. I'm very pleased. I'm pleased that I came here and immediately found a nice family.
( Uraiwan had just graduated from her university in Thailand in economics at the time of this interview. She was 23 years old.)
I live with Mrs Cinder or Sneider, I can't pronounce it correctly. She's quite nice. First when I got here, I had another family, near here, near the school, but they were a horrible family. The landlady was like someone pretending to be nice, but her eyes, as she spoke, weren't nice. When I asked her if I could turn the heater on, she said: " Are you cold - I'm not cold, I'm hot " and her eyes were like a fox's! When I asked her if I could have some hot water she said it wasn't working properly and her husband was going to mend the system. So that day I had no shower, no bath and I couldn't wash my hair. Oh it was terrible and the room was very cold and damp. I stayed there three days.
At night they woke up and had a quarrel, the husband and the wife, because of the children wanting to go to the toilet; neither of them wanted to get up and take them. Oh, a horrible family. So I moved to Mrs Sneider's house.
She's quite nice but at first she seemed strict. I think it's normal for the family - they have to tell you things about the house. I find her a very neat woman. Says things like:
'When you've had a bath will you please hang the bath mat up to dry?'
In the flat I had in London no one told me what to do or anything like that. We were in charge of everything - the only people staying there were students, no landlady.
Here we aren't expected to have guests after 11.00 but in my flat in London we could have guests anytime, so it's strange here.... I feel bad towards the landlady because sometimes she hears the doorbell and has to get up and open the door before I can get there. She's always quicker than me. One night my friend Didi rang at a quarter past eleven. My landlady was not pleased but she didn't say anything. So I felt very guilty and I said sorry.
Khaled clashes with the landlady a lot. Why? He's a strong, strong personality. He's a boy, why should he have to respect and obey just a woman? If she told him not to do something he did it.
Khaled doesn't like people leaving notes for him. The landlady doesn't see him often so she has to leave him notes. He doesn't come back at regular times. I can't understand the quarrel between them. Khaled says that English people only want money, they don't care about people's feelings, the people who live with them. But the landlady says something like 'You live in England with an English family you have to obey some rules'
But he said: 'Oh I'm not working for you." The clash between them then was over her leaving him a note. Khaled does not want to be left notes.
I wasn't pleased when the landlady said: 'This is my house, this is my country'. I don't like the feeling that we are the foreigners. I know a Thai boy whose landlord said to him
'Get out, it's my house, it's my country, you are rubbish in my country'
This situation is horrible for a foreigner.
I felt sympathy for Khaled and the landlady, for both sides, in this case. My landlady came upstairs and said 'Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to have a row in front of you.'
It's not her fault, it's not his fault, it's a misunderstanding.
She's not from round here - her accent is different from people here. She gives me a book to read so she can help me with the pronunciation. She corrects me every time I say something incorrect. She does it in a gentle way. When she is talking about her everyday life and uses a new word, she pauses a little bit 'This is a new word, do you know it?' I say 'No' and ask her how to spell it. She spells it and then explains the word simply, a word like 'allergy'.
I see her regularly each evening and each morning. We eat together. I always come into the kitchen while she is cooking and ask 'What is this?' and 'What is this?' Sometimes I sit and speak and she listens.