Home Sweet Homestay – living and loving the language


OAXACA, Mexico

Many Spanish immersion programs offer a “homestay.” It’s a real-world setting for using and learning language.  Is that something a middle-aged adult really needs to do?  I mean, after college, aren’t we too old be living with strangers? Isn’t that going to cramp our adult freedom?  Wouldn’t it be better to rent an apartment, maybe with a friend or spouse?

If your answer is “Yes,” please keep reading and consider my experience.

Hosts are more than you imagine them to be …

Getting off the Estrella Roja coach in Puebla for my first immersion, I know little except I will live with a family named Gutierrez. Of course, I speculated about what they would be like.  By the time I reach Puebla, I have a clear, imaginary picture of them.  But Julian and Lupita Gutierrez are not as I imagined.

My first impression is I’m having a homestay in a nursing home.  Julian is at least 80 and Lupita is in her mid-sixties.  He has a shock of white hair; hers is still naturally dark, with long eyelashes to match.  Julian and Lupita are nothing like the multi-generational family I imaged.  I’m afraid we won’t have much in common. But I’m wrong!

Their house is small by U.S. standards, but comfortable; their bookshelves are jammed with titles covering a range of interests; and souvenir plates from their travels cover the dining room wall.  My room is more than I expected: a double bed, desk, dresser, and built in closet as well as a private bathroom.  It’s everything I need.

I rise early the first morning, a Sunday. Julian steps out of the kitchen to offer me a mug of fresh coffee flavored with cinnamon.  “From now on, we speak only Spanish,” he tells me in English.  It’s one of the Institute’s rules.   I’m okay with that.  I came to learn.  And then he asks if I want to attend early Mass with them.  I say “yes” because I’m committed to saying “yes” every language and cultural opportunity.  And after Mass he invites me to go to with him to a friend’s ranchito for a party.  Again I say “yes.”

Hebert and Socorro host the party and don’t speak English. Neither do any of the other 25 or 30 guests. Julian introduces me to people whose names I immediately forget. Then he settles me into a conversation with Hebert’s son, an attorney.  Seeing that I’m “dog-paddling” in a conversation, he leaves me alone.  At first I feel anxious; later see it was shrewd on his part.

Over bottles of Corona beer, I chat as best I can with the young attorney.  Although I went to Mexico with some vocabulary and basic grammar, I couldn’t mold it into a real sentence.  But the attorney is patient and kind; he nods and encourages me. Slowly, thanks to his affirmation, I gain enough confidence to push my boundaries in Spanish.  By day’s end, I’m exhausted but elated. I’ve been in conversations for nearly seven hours!

I suppose our proximity in ages and life experiences started my rapport with them.  We are, at most fifteen years apart in age and we’ve already lived a lot of the ups and downs that life dishes out.  In less than two days, we act as if we’ve known each other a long time.   I feel settled, without the uncertainty of being with strangers.

Homestay is more than room and board …

They give me more than room and board. Lupita corrects my words and makes it her mission to improve my accent.  “Say fácil,” she says at breakfast.  It’s more like an order than a request.  Fácil means “easy” and is accented: FÁH-sil.

I try to copy her accent but it comes out “fa-SIL,” and “fassil” and “FUH-sal.”

“No.  FÁH-sil.”

And so it goes, back and forth for a week until I get it; until fácil is fácil.  While Lupita works on my diction, Julian guides me through some of the cultural norms.  

Buen provecho! he says as I sit down the dinner.  It means roughly the same as bon appetit.  “We say that at every meal,” he explains, “and we say it to strangers in a restaurant.  It’s impolite to ignore those who are eating.”  This is a revelation!  In Minnesota, we give people their space and this would be an intrusion. But in the more extroverted culture of Mexico, it is rude to ignore people.  This is only the beginning of lessons in language and culture.

Very gently and casually, they take me under their wing and teach me without appearing to teach me at all.  Like a child, I learn by imitating what they do.  Its’ easy. And they do this when I lived with them during four of the five immersions.

A network of lasting friends is possible …

Eduardo and Lorena live next door to Julian and sometimes board students.  He is a businessman, she volunteers at a nursing home, and their children are grown.  Eduardo and I are the same age and on Sunday afternoon, during an outing, he and I climb through cactus and mesquite to the top of a butte. Our friendship grows out of that adventure.  On my next visit, they take me to the indigenous town of Cauhuatinchan to explore an ex-convento dating from the 1500s.  A couple years later, after immersion, when I work voluntarily in Puebla, he invites my wife and me to stay with them instead of a hotel.

Hebert is a doctor, an anesthetist, about my age.  He and Socorro live in the city but own the ranchito in the country.  They are a couple of expansive generosity and we become friends almost instantly.  One year, I spend the Cinco de Mayo holiday with them, sitting in their arbor and talking for seven hours! At other times, I visit the ranchito, or they take me to their social events.

Besides friends who are contemporaries, my network includes former teachers with whom I correspond regularly, conversation guides, and some of their family and friends who make up my social circle in Puebla. A homestay is an efficient way to build a network of friends.  Once I acquired a network of friends, the city no longer seemed foreign but familiar. I no longer felt like a visitor, but a resident.  That’s how I feel in Puebla; like I belong there.  An emotional connection to people anchors me to the city.

Home Sweet Homestay 

A homestay adds a special dimension learning and living in Mexico. It’s a privilege to be an integral part of a family.  This is one of the joys of Spanish immersion.  And although I’m no longer a student, I seek out homestays instead of an apartment when I volunteer in Mexico.

Now I am living with Estela and Daniel in a Oaxacan family.  They are in their sixties, people of humble origins and means and not quite middle-class, although their grown children are.  I have my own room, the appointments are simple; the food is excellent and abundant.  So are laughter, conversation, and love among all members of the family – including me.

I have always learned more about how to talk and act from living with families than from classrooms.   Like a child at the dinner table, I’m still learning the language as it’s really spoken from people who use it daily.

Learning the language and learning to talk are different things.  I can learn the language as a body of knowledge yet be unable to really speak it.  But living in a family, I hear hijole! for “wow!”, orale for affirmation like “okay,” and esta en la onda for “to be with it.”  Something that is produced or grown around Oaxaca is criollo, and if you appreciate something, the phrase is, te pasas.   If you’re frustrated, you might say, no manchas.  A fool is called  a pendejo, or guage, and a small boy is a chamaco.   You won’t find these in regular dictionaries or, if you do, you won’t know how to use them, and when.

After seven years, I’ve come to regard Julian and Lupita as my Mexican padrino and madrina, or god-parents.  What began as a passing acquaintance has become familial love.  Their friends and neighbors are my part of my extended family, and I’m a part of theirs.  To be loved in your family is a divine gift; to be loved in another country, another culture, in another family, is an even greater gift.

Not getting your money’s worth … 

So, if you’re still thinking about an apartment, you may have more privacy and liberty to go as you please but at a price.  You’ll have fewer opportunities to learn day-to-day Spanish from native speakers.  And if you are living with a spouse or friend, you are less likely to speak to each other in Spanish.

If you skip the homestay and opt for an apartment, you have just cut your immersion experience by half. Said another way, you’re not getting your money’s worth because you’re getting only half the education you’re paying for.

So, weighing the two options, which is the better deal?

For me, there’s no place like homestay.




4 thoughts on “Home Sweet Homestay – living and loving the language

  1. Oaxaca is an amazing city and certainly a wonderful place to learn Spanish. I’m in Madrid at the moment and they have an immersion program called Pueblo Inglés that is pretty interesting. It’s great that you are inspiring people to learn! JT


    • ¡Gracias JT! Así ‘Pueblo Inglés’ es un ‘homestay’ en reverso para los españoles que quieren aprender inglés. El proceso funciona para todos lenguajes. Y espero que el blog es una inspiración. ¡Buena suerte!


  2. I think it’s great that you’re willing to do homestays when you go to Mexico; it’s an infinitely better way to really see and learn about a country and culture, and of course the language benefits are undeniable.

    For me personally I’m not sure how long I could comfortably live under someone else’s roof. What I like to do when traveling short-term is stay with locals through Couchsurfing, or if I move somewhere then I try to live in shared student-like accommodation with locals as well. Funny enough, it was living with Dutch students in the Netherlands where I learned exactly the same piece of etiquette you mentioned here about it being rude to ignore people while eating — my housemates found it incredibly anti-social that I never told people “eet smakelijk” when I saw them eating, but I just didn’t know!


    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m more than willing to do homestays in Mexico, I request them of the volunteer organization I’m serving. Not only do I learn more of the nuances of the culture, but I also make friends in whose company I am welcome when I return, and with whom I keep contact. Those who accept homestays (like me) are pre-selected by other organizations and are disposed to be companionable. For me – and this may be a function of the difference in our ages, but couch-surfing strikes me as improvising, like hitch-hiking, and something I would do in my 20s and 30s, but not now in my 70s. I think it’s probably a difference in where we are in our life cycles, but it appears to go to the same end.

      When I hiked across Austria, some 40 years ago, people often said ‘guten apetit’ to those in the little alpine cafes where I ate, though I saw less of it in the cities.

      Again, thanks for your thoughts. Keep writing. You write well and research thoroughly.


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