August 14, 2013

Hosting an Exchange Student is a Feast of Learning Opportunities

If I haven’t yet convinced you that hosting an exchange student is well worth your while, here’s another reason: It’s an amazing learning experience for everyone involved. Certainly it’s a learning experience for the student who is traveling, but I’m convinced my family learned as much, if not more, than our exchange student.

The exposure to a second language and another culture is an obvious plus. Our exchange student had a very good command of the English language, so we didn’t have to carry around our English/Spanish dictionary as we anticipated we might, but we did have the opportunity for many “How do you say this in Spanish?” or “Do you have this/do this in Spain?” conversations. These discussions were very enlightening because there are intricacies about a language, dialect and culture that are best learned by conversing with someone who is fluent.

While “Pablo” was in town, we made a point to play several language-based games as a family. We especially enjoyed several rounds of “boys vs. girls” Pictionary (which did occasionally require the crutch of GoogleTranslate). My son and our exchange student had amazing Pictionary synergy. The intensity and excitement when it was their team’s turn to draw and guess was particularly memorable. Pablo would shout out words in Spanish, and hurriedly look those words up on Google Translate, then he’d shout out words in English that were sometimes hard for everyone to understand because of his accent, but my son would understand him and sometimes would lead to him guessing the correct word. They would high five and fist bump and laugh. There were a lot of language skills exchanged and learned during those intense game nights!

There is also the overall motivation factor: There’s nothing like a group of kids sitting around your kitchen table trading forbidden words in each others’ native languages to pique everyone’s interest in fluency. The reality is that our entire family is much more interested in learning and practicing Spanish now that we have an “extended family” in Spain that we want to be able to communicate with. I have bookmarked the language learning software available through my local library and I continue to keep in touch with “Pablo’s” mom and grandma via email. They are helping me with my Spanish, and I’m giving them an opportunity to practice their English. My son has downloaded Spanish apps to his iPod, and I’ve loaded a series of Spanish lessons to my old phone so I can listen and learn while I walk and/or drive. I’ve checked out a heap of Spanish/English picture books from the library that the kids and I (and our new friend, “Google Translate”) are muddling through together. My daughter is setting steep goals for herself in her Spanish language classes in high school next year, and my husband is initiating daily conversations about plans for visiting Spain in the near future.     

Which brings me to another key learning opportunity: Geography. Although I’ve been to Europe several times (including one brief visit to Seville, Spain), my understanding of the geography of Spain increased immensely because of our exchange experience. After Pablo arrived, the whole family gathered around maps of Spain to understand where Madrid is (where Pablo is from) in relation to Seville (and in relation to the beach Pablo visits with his dad, and the beach his Grandma was visiting while he was in Oregon, and the island his Mom planned to visit later in the summer . . .). I had no idea the southern tip of Spain was so close to the northern tip of Africa. Because of Pablo, the geography had relevance, which motivated us to learn and helped cement the information (Note to self: Find ways to make learning relevant when teaching, too).

Near the end of Pablo’s homestay, our family spent an evening “walking down the streets” of his neighborhood using Google Earth. We saw his school, the tennis courts he plays on, the pool he swims in, the park that’s across the street from his flat, his grandparent’s flat, his Dad’s neighborhood, the home of the most famous goalie from Madrid . . . We even looked at our own house via Google Earth. We could tell how long ago the picture was taken based on the vehicle parked in our driveway, and we could infer that the picture was taken in the summer because of the color of our lawn!

After Pablo left, we researched the size of Spain compared to Oregon using this really nifty comparative tool. And we’ve all become experts in the time zone differences between Oregon and Spain (having all set the “world clock” app on our e-devices to Madrid time and periodically checking to see “what time it is for Pablo”).

Pretty cool, huh? And there’s more! Stay tuned. In my next post I’ll talk about how hosting an exchange student satisfied the teacher as well as the learner inside of me. 

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