Maria Stokstad was accustomed to giving out hugs, offering the warm embrace to friends and acquaintances in the family’s Greek tradition.

But for two Japanese students living with the Stokstads while attending the University of Montana, the hugs took some getting used to – a full embrace being far from Japanese custom.

“The first couple days, as a Greek mom, I was throwing my arms around them,” Stokstad said. “They didn’t know how to handle it. By the fifth or sixth day, they would just open their arms and accept it.”

Stokstad hosted the two students from Nagasaki, Japan, in her Missoula home for three weeks last month, completing a trial run for the university’s English Language Institute and its burgeoning homestay program.

The language institute has long accepted students from around the world looking to develop their English proficiency before matriculating into the larger university, or returning to their home country. While enrolled in the program, students have historically lived on campus or in local apartments.

Recently, however, the university saw an opportunity to further integrate its foreign students into the community by matching them with a host family. With the trial run a success, the university is now recruiting host families for the spring semester, when its homestay program launches its inaugural season.

“If they’re integrated into an American family, students are able to be around the English language, not just while taking classes, but also during off hours,” said program coordinator Demetra Rivard. “The English they’re exposed to in the home isn’t necessarily what they’d see in textbooks.”

Rivard said such university programs are rare. When looking to develop the program at UM, there were few existing models to turn to. The program went through a short trial run this fall, looking to balance the responsibilities of the host family with the needs of the student.

In the Stokstad home, communicating wasn’t always easy, given the language barrier. But over the course of three weeks, the family slowed its conversations while its Japanese guests learned the nuances of an American household.

“The biggest reward was the development of our relationship,” Stokstad said. “As we slowed down our family conversations, we were able to dig a little deeper into their culture and share a little more from our hearts. It was fulfilling for myself, and it was lovely for my children.”

Stokstad takes delight in recounting her family’s experience playing host. Insistent at first on drinking green tea, the Japanese students eventually took a liking to coffee. While it’s not common in their culture to hug, the two students became accustomed to doing so.

Around the house, Stokstad said, her family made a conscious effort to speak slowly and to engage the students in conversation. The students were shy at first, but the family encouraged them to give their English a try.

Stokstad said the students gained confidence during their stay and went home with a good experience.

“In addition to language improvement, it was the fact that they stepped into a new culture and took that risk,” Stokstad said. “We would definitely do it again. We would consider a longer stay and other cultures as well.”

***

The English Language Institute is currently hosting 95 students from around the world – Morocco, France, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and China, among others.

The program has been on campus for 20 years and has grown over much of that time. It also has come to serve as a recruiting tool for the university, helping international students improve their language skills before entering the university to pursue a degree.

The homestay program looks to enhance that experience.

“The program provides a student with a 24/7 immersion experience, and it takes learning beyond the classroom,” said Sandra Janusch, director of the English Language Institute. “There’s research showing that a lot of learning happens at unplanned times. This makes the whole experience of learning a language a richer experience.”

Ko Yukitake left his home in Tokyo to attend the English Language Institute. In Missoula, he’s been dazzled by the “many trees and animals – squirrels and deer,” which he’d never seen growing up in Tokyo.

While he’s leaving the institute at the end of the fall semester in December, he would consider the homestay program were he to return to Missoula.

“The biggest purpose is I would improve my English skills,” said Yukitake. “The other purpose is to experience American life. I’m interested in culture.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

Outbrain