Are you thinking of learning a new language? We often hear that it’s never too late to learn something new, right? But the thought of learning a new language past our 50s can be intimidating and quite frankly somewhat scary.
I decided to learn Spanish when I was almost 50. I already speak English and French at native levels thanks to an English-speaking mom and a French dad. I remember taking Spanish classes in college in the 80s and when I vacationed in Mexico for the first time in 2008 I thought it would all come back to me. It didn’t.
What that trip revealed was that I wanted to travel more and that I wanted to learn how to speak Spanish. I took a few classes at the local WMCA but never really had the motivation or time to fully commit.
In 2016, after selling my house, car, and everything else that wouldn’t fit into a suitcase, I made plans to travel to Latin America to teach English and to write. After the initial few months in Ecuador, I quickly realized that if I wanted to continue traveling in Spanish-speaking countries I needed to learn Spanish. So, I booked a 3-month Spanish language course with a homestay in Oaxaca City, Mexico.
View of Santo Domingo Cathedral, Oaxaca City
It was bold, it was scary, and it was the best decision I made for myself.
I booked a comprehensive 3-month course with Spanish Immersion School. I took that photo you see on the front page of their website (I’ll get into that in a bit).
There are many ways to learn a new language – language schools, online classes, apps, one-on-one tutoring, language exchange meet-ups, and language classes including homestays.
I hesitated before deciding to live with a family that I didn’t know and couldn’t understand. But I’m happy I chose to.
The director of the school picked me up at the airport and drove me to my homestay. This home is where I would have my breakfast with the family every morning, take my morning classes, and hang out with fellow students.
The matriarch of the family made sure I had everything I needed and sign-languaged a few things to me when I got there. Neither she, nor her family members spoke any English. This may sound scary, but it’s the best way to learn. I was FULLY immersed at his point.
Maestro Lazarro with a student at the homestay/school.
Living with the family forced me to look up words that I needed for basic everyday living. It’s good to have a translation app on your phone or tablet, like Google Translate or Say Hi. Let me tell you that Google Translate was my best friend at that time.
Living with the family also immersed me in the culture of the country. Something I think I would have had to search for had I not lived with a family. I learned about family structures, about community ethics, about neighborly matters, about homemade food, and about history.
This full immersion also helped me to feel included and make friends. I quickly became pals with my teachers and the family members and started exchanging knowledge. I have a photography degree and own professional photography equipment and exchanged some classes for professional photo shoots. Thus the photos on the school’s website.
Living with the family challenged me to stretch my confidence more than I would have had I been given the opportunity to speak English. Don’t get me wrong, some days were outright frustrating when I couldn’t understand and couldn’t be understood. But over time, those days became few and far apart as I navigated my way through my new language.
Living with the family also taught me to be more open-minded. I thought I was open-minded and didn’t hold any preconceptions, but I learned things with that family that made me rethink how I perceived things before meeting them. I grew to love Mexico more than I ever thought I would.
During my stay, I got to go to a Mexican birthday party for my teacher’s son, and I was invited to the neighbor’s traditional quinceanera. I also witnessed real local traditions that were not hyped up for the tourists. All this was one of my favorite parts.
Lessons in the park – Maestro Jacob with a student.
Everyone is different, of course. Everyone’s thresholds are different, and no one can confirm that all language homestays will be an amazing experience. I had a referral to my Spanish school and homestay through a fellow English teacher living abroad who had gone to that school the previous year. I recommend you do a lot of research and read the reviews on their social media pages. Also, you can reach out to former students to hear about their experiences firsthand.
I can proudly say that I now speak Spanish fairly well, and I even impress Mexicans with my proper pronunciation. I feel the swell of proud self-accomplishment take over me every time someone comments on my Spanish-speaking skills.
Traditional Oaxacan dancers in front of Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca City.
About 3 years after I had completed my Spanish classes and had moved to another part of Mexico, I rang up the director of the school because I wanted to go for a visit. He booked me a room in one of their homestays.
On my first morning at breakfast with the family and language students, I sat across from an American woman who had just celebrated her 80th birthday. She was traveling alone in Mexico and learning Spanish. I was fascinated and inspired by her story and her youthful yearning to learn a new language at 80!
Colorful Streets of Oaxaca City, Mexico
Doing something out of our comfort zone late in life can be unnerving, I know. Learning a new language late in life can even feel futile, but I can personally say that living in a homestay while learning Spanish was one of the best decisions I made.
Have you ever done a language homestay in a foreign country? Are you thinking about it? Let us know in the comments below.