What Do I Talk About With My Foreign Exchange Student?

Hosting a foreign exchange student is very rewarding. One of the reasons for hosting a student is to learn about different cultures. Therefore, you’ll likely spend lots of time at the dinner table talking about their family traditions and customs. Avoid discussions about politics or religion because they could offend or lead to hurt feelings. 

As host parents, you’ll also have the opportunity to nurture, guide, and counsel your student on many life decisions. Encourage them to come to you with their problems, talk with about friends, and tell you all about their day. Keep an open-door policy so they will come to you with their fears, sorrows, and frustrations. In other words – just communicate. You’ll make an impact on this young person’s life forever. 

Clear Communication With Your Exchange Student

With access to social media, Skype, and video chatting, you’ll likely talk with and see your students many times before they arrive.  When in-person,  however, they will probably behave differently.  Initially, your student will be shy and a little insecure about their English skills. Help them out by talking slowly, speaking clearly, and keeping the conversation simple. Make your student feel comfortable about asking you to repeat or explain what you said. Also, be patient and give them a chance to think through what they want to say. The conversation might go slowly for a while. After just a few weeks, they might be a little chatterbox.

Breaking the Ice With Your Exchange Student

Your exchange student program will expect you to pick up and welcome your student at the airport. You should have a sign or banner that they can easily recognize so they’ll have no trouble finding you. Once in the car, they might be quiet on the way home. In fact, they might be quiet for a few days. Ease their nervousness by pointing out a few buildings and landmarks on your ride. You can also ask them about their flight or talk with them about what you’ll be doing the first couple of days they are with you. 

Your first real discussion will be a day or two after they arrive and will center on the rules set by the exchange student program. From here you’ll share with them your household rules and expectations. Make sure the student understands the “why” behind the rules to understand their importance.  You might consider having your other children there to help present the rules. During this time you’ll also want to ask questions of them that will help you get to know them. 

Break the ice by asking short, direct questions like:

  • What chores do you do at your home? 
  • Who prepares most of the meals at your home? Do you like to cook?
  • Do you have pets at home? If so, what are their names?
  • Do you play any sports at your school?
  • Ask about hobbies or fun things they like to do.

Find out what they expect and what they want/need from you. Talk with them about sports, clubs and extra-curricular activities at the school. This is the time to let them know you will support, care for and protect them. 

Learn the Culture of Your Exchange Student

Mealtime is an excellent time for conversation. Along with asking about their day, this is a good time to learn from your exchange student. Let them introduce you to music and cuisine from their country.  When holidays are approaching, be open to hearing about their practices and customs. You can even add one of these traditions to your family’s tradition to make them feel more at home. Be prepared to talk with them about holidays they might not be familiar with. 

Talking Through Problems With Your Exchange Student

Make your student feel comfortable talking to you about anything. Build a relationship of trust and honesty and they will confide in you. Always listen to them without interrupting or judging. If your student is lonely or sad, don’t take it personally. It doesn’t mean they are unhappy with you or with your family. They will feel homesick sometimes and it is good for them to express it. 

What Shouldn’t I Talk About With My Exchange Student?

Avoid controversial and argumentative discussions with your student. Other than politics and religion what other topics should I stay away from? 

  • Be careful not to say something that sounds like you’re putting down the student’s country or culture.
  • Try not to make a lot of comparisons between the two countries. For example, you don’t want to sound like you think America is better than other countries.
  • Watch using offensive language. Your student might not be used to hearing it. 
  • LIft-up your student and don’t criticize them. 

Avoiding Miscommunication With Your Exchange Student

Before your student arrives, take the time to do some self-study. Do your research about their traditions and learn a few words in their language to let them know that you care. You’ll want to know enough about their culture to be able to have a pleasant discussion with them without being offensive. Your having done your homework will also let your student know that you respect the cultural exchange.  

Here are a few more tips to help avoid any miscommunication.

  • Your student answers “yes” to almost everything. This is a powerful indicator that they are probably having trouble understanding you. Talk more slowly and work through the miscommunication. 
  • Be forgiving and receive forgiveness. You are bound to make mistakes or have misunderstandings along the way. 
  • Take care to keep an even tone by not raising your voice or sounding stressed. 
  • If your student uses a word inappropriately, help and correct them in a lighthearted way. 

Although you’ll spend a lot of time talking with your exchange student, give them a chance to be alone sometimes too. Don’t rush them as soon as they get home from school. They might be fatigued (especially in the first few weeks of school) and in need of a little downtime.