Au Pairs Should Use Language that Host Kids Can Understand

by cv harquail on September 23, 2014

Many families look for au pairs who can help their children learn a language other than English.

The idea is that the au pair can speak to the child in the au pair’s first language, and teach the child the second language through everyday interactions.

2189089518_f1a797b9db_zConceptually, this makes sense. We do, after all, learn our original languages by being immersed in contexts where a certain language is being spoken. Since au pairs spend many hours a week interacting directly with host children, au pairs can create this language context around the child. This strategy works especially well when the child/ren are just learning to communicate with words, and when the host parents or other adults can also speak to the child in the non-English language.

I understand the desire of parents who want their au pairs to be responsible for teaching a language to a child– but it’s also important to prioritize the relationship between the child and the au pair.

When either the child or the au pair speaks in a language the other doesn’t understand, there’s an automatic block between the sounds that are spoken and the meaning that’s received. This means that their ability to create a quick, trusting relationship is impaired.

Sure, some people can adapt more quickly that others to being immersed in a language they don’t speak. They figure it out with pantomime, context clues, dictionaries, daily language lessons, apps, and google translate.

And, some people can cope better than others with the stresses involved in feeling cut-off, out of the loop, mystified, confused, frustrated, and mis-understood.

I’m worried that the child in the situation, below, might not be one of those people.   

We have just welcomed our first au pair. My 2.5 year old son speaks only english very well and seems royally upset that we have asked our AP to speak to him only in spanish. How do I balance the language goal against building trust in their relationship? I’m afraid we are making a big mistake. Any advice? ~RosettaStoneHM

When it comes to au pairs working with children, I’d focus on helping the child and the au pair create a connection before I started to address the language learning.

When the au pair and the child are new to each other, the au pair should be able to speak to the child in English and the second language, switching between them and repeating things in both language as the situation demands. The au pair should also put extra emphasis on non-verbal cues, not just miming what to do, but working to convey the warmth, encouragement, affection, approval, and enthusiasm that kids (heck, all of us) crave.

When I say ‘speak in a language the host kids can understand’, I mean that you and your au pair should work to find ways to communicate what’s most important to the children– that they are loved and safe.

Until that foundation is created, none of the words in the world– whether in English, Spanish, or Klingon– should matter.

That’s my $.02. What’s yours?

For parents and au pairs who’ve tried this strategy, what’s your experience been like?

  • Have you eased the kids and au pair into a second language relationship?
  • Or jumped in with a ‘total immersion’ approach?

 

 

Image: Amankay Maas, on Flickr

{ 39 comments }

Emerald City HM September 23, 2014 at 5:03 pm

This is actually an ideal post for me. HD and I tend to butt heads on this matter. HD really wants the girls to learn Spanish. I focus more on making sure the girls know how to communicate their needs to the au pair. Our oldest does know some Spanish because of our 1st and 2nd au pairs, but our youngest (just under 2) just tends to ignore the au pair when she is speaking in Spanish.

We made the mistake of switching to an au pair that only wanted to speak English to the girls during the time period when our youngest would have had the easiest time I think. I do think our oldest is better with understanding Spanish becasue I’m pretty sure our first au pair was very talkative and only spoke Spanish during the day.

Should be working September 23, 2014 at 6:49 pm

This has been an ongoing issue for us. My kids–middle-schoolers–understand AP’s language and can speak some, but don’t want to. When a new AP arrives, I ask her to try to speak some of her language with them. But then that alienates the kids, and indeed a good relationship is priority, so then I usually give her the ok to speak mostly English until they bond. And then the AP doesn’t ever really go back to her own language and kids resist when she does.

I was hoping to get more out of the language opportunity of the AP program than we have so far.

skny September 23, 2014 at 7:04 pm

I have had something similar happen to us.
Our first au pair came when my girls were 2.5yo and 6mo. She was a transition au pair covering up while we waited for an extension au pair to come to us (8 weeks wait), and buying her time while she waited for a family to come.
The 2.5 could not understand a word in Portuguese and gave this au pair an extremely hard time. It wasnt an easy deal. 2yo could not really understand a word. I decided to keep at it because 1. au pair was a transition one, and I figured by the end I could change with permanent au pair, and 2 my whole family speaks Portuguese only and was at me to get the kids speaking the language.
I agree that had I not had my family in my home country pressuring us, I would had given up. It was not easy on neither the au pair or the child. It took them a huge time to bond. Next au pair already got a better deal as the girls understood a lot more by that point.
Do keep some perspective on expectations though. I took girls to my home country for a month after baby was born (100% exposure), and even 2 ys later, they still dont understand 100% of what they are told. And they still will only respond in English.
So depending on reasoning behind it, I do not think it is worth it hurting the relationship.
The other thing is that I spoke to a specialist in bilinguism, and he was explaining that more than exposure, for a language to stick there must be significance. Or the child will not likely take to it and acchieve fluency. We had to increase exposure to my parents, friends and all to try to create significance for our children

Seattle Mom September 23, 2014 at 7:38 pm

I really agree with this post.

My kids went to a language immersion preschool, but even there the teachers would say things in both English and the target language until the kids caught on. And the kids responded in english mostly and that was ok. I was pretty amazed by how much of the language my older daughter understood, and she only went there 3 mornings per week. Of course now she hasn’t been there in 2 years and doesn’t remember any of it. The kids who really got it came from bilingual homes. I still think it was a valuable experience for my older daughter. My younger daughter only went there from 2 to 2 1/2 so she didn’t really get the language acquisition, she barely remembers her time there.

It’s tough to raise kids bilingual. A few of my friends have tried and eventually gave up. The thing that seems to work is when one parents speaks to the child only in the foreign language from birth, and the other parent speaks english or both. Even then the kids often don’t actually speak the language, they just understand it. As skny said, they have to have a lot of exposure. My friend is french and she speaks only in french to them, and they spend a few weeks every summer with her parents in France who only speak french, and they do a lot of french playgroups and extra language/culture classes. They still struggle with speaking. So it’s a lot to expect the au pair alone to get a kid to communicate in the language, without the parents speaking the language too.

hOstCDmom September 23, 2014 at 8:57 pm

I disagree with many posters. I insist on 100% AP language with the kids, and prioritize this above early days bonding with the AP and pretty much above all else. I don’t think it is easy — I KNOW it is very, very difficult. I also know that it is JOB REQUIREMENT for our APs that they speak their language with the kids (a language the HD and I in fact do not speak, but the kids are proficient in to varying degrees.) I took a sink or swim approach with my 6 kids — they were immersed and had to learn the APs language to communicate with the AP. I have entered rematch with an AP for their inability/unwillingness to speak their language with the kids– great AP otherwise, but if they cannot satisfy my #1 priority for having an AP, then I can’t justify having them as my AP. And before I am flamed by all, I state pedantically explicitly up front in matching that this is our #1 priority, above all else, and is a make or break requirement.

Schmetterink September 29, 2014 at 5:35 am

hOstCDmom, do you stick to one foreign language and get au pairs from the same country or do you switch from language to language (dialect to dialect)? How to your au pairs handle improving their English?

hOstCDmom September 29, 2014 at 12:10 pm

One language, same region (several countries speak the same language in this region). AP speaks English with us during her off duty time, during her free time with friends, during her classes etc. But when she is on duty, 45h/week, she speaks only her language with the kids and does lessons/activities with them in her language.

Gretchen September 23, 2014 at 9:50 pm

The research on raising bilingual children would suggest that if you want a child to learn a second language, the speaker/teacher should speak ONLY that language to them. Otherwise it simply will not work. In addition, both parents need to be fully supportive of the process as well, or the kids will sense that and they won’t do it.

We are now in the 4th year of the au pair program and every au pair has been Germany. From the very start, we ask the au pair to speak ONLY German with our children. Until they were 4, they could choose to respond in either English or German (and did some of both). But once they turned 5, they have to ask in German if they want to au pair to respond to their request. She will help them find the correct words, but they have to speak them. In addition, we as parents praise our children for speaking German and show them how proud we are and that we value it.

Our children are fully bilingual are able to understand everything the au pairs, and their German friends and any other German speaker says to them. They are also able to speak German with no accent. Although they are still young enough that they sometimes use German word order when speaking English and vice versa. However, that will work itself out with time.

Our children have had close relationships with all of au pairs and every previous au pair has come back to visit at least once. The friendly personality and nurturing nature of the au pair is what builds the relationship. Not the language!

Once the children are too old for an au pair, we will start hosting German exchange students so the language connection will continue. We will also start signing them up for after school and/or weekend German programs and classes.

Raising bilingual children is not something you can do half-heartedly. You must make a full commitment to it or it is a waste of everyone’s time. And it could potentially create tension and frustration within the family.

Taking a Computer Lunch September 23, 2014 at 9:51 pm

AP #1 only spoke her native language to child #2 – she arrived when he was 5 months old and stayed until shortly after his 4th birthday (she was the one we had tried to sponsor). By 18 months he had an equal number of words in both languages – but they were different, because the vocabulary she used with him differed. He would always try her language on any stranger he encountered, and if they responded as if he were babbling in babytalk, then he would instantly switch to English. I spent a lot of money on books, tapes, and movies to make sure her language was reinforced. Unfortunately, AP #2 did not come from the same country, so despite hiring women to come play in that language a couple of times a week, after 18 months when AP #3 arrived, when he was 5 1/2, he could understand what was said to him, but responded in English. By then he was in an immersion program in yet another language (but one closely related so he was able to pick it up easily). At the moment he is not studying a foreign language and is really resistant, so the whole project backfired.

WarmStateMomma September 23, 2014 at 9:58 pm

I would prioritize the language, but that’s not for everyone. A huge reason we paid so much to have an AP as opposed to doing day care for half the cost was for the language benefit. AP#1 arrived when my daughter was 3 months old and jumped right in with 100% Mandarin. At 21 months old, my daughter speaks 4-5 word sentences in Mandarin and her English has only caught up to her Mandarin in the last month or so. She will ask me for something in English and I will tell her to ask the AP, to whom she will repeat her request in Mandarin. It’s incredible to watch.

We don’t really care about how well the AP speaks English, so long as we can communicate the basics. I’d really hate for my kids to learn English from our APs because they don’t pronounce the words correctly, use proper grammar, or even use the correct words half the time. By requiring 100% Mandarin from the APs, we ensure that she hears only native Mandarin (the AP) and native English (HPs). From what I’ve read about second language acquisition, it’s useful to have separate spheres for the two languages. For example, one parent speaks language 1 and the other speaks language 2, or the kids use language 1 at school and language 2 at home.

Don’t give up on bilingualism if it’s important to you. It’s tougher to start when the kid is 2.5yo than an infant, but it’s doable. I know plenty of kids (elementary and high school age) who moved to the US not knowing any English and sounded as American as the next kid within 2 years.

I haven’t had an AP or a candidate balk at my language requirements (they’re prominently discussed in our host family profile), but it’s not like they were going to hone their English skills by talking to a baby/toddler anyway.

DowntownMom September 23, 2014 at 10:50 pm

You may want to start with the Dora the explorer approach by repeating every sentence in two languages and then eventually, once the child has a basic foundation, switch over to Spanish completely. That will also make it easier for your au pair to be in the habit of speaking Spanish with him and not suddenly have to switch languages after some weeks or months of only English. Just an alternative, if total immersion is too hard on your son.

American Host Mom in Europe September 24, 2014 at 4:08 am

I think it is interesting hearing the different perspectives, especially the # of comments about how difficult bilingualism is to attain. I come at it from a different perspective; I am an American living in a European country where I’ve got a basic proficiency with the language, but am not fluent by any stretch. My husband is a native speaker. My children go to a local (language) daycare, and while they’ve always heard my husband and his parents speak together, they only learned the local language once they started daycare (at 3 for child 1, and at 2 for the twins). They are now 6 and 5 (twins), and are all completely bilingual, and it was never a challenge. At home we mostly speak English, but once they became fluent, they mostly started speaking local language with their dad, although English is our home language, and he is practically a native English speaker. I’m familiar with the 1P1L (one parent, one language) approach, but we’ve never really followed that, and it has never been a problem. Even I speak local language with the children when they have friends over, or sometimes if they are telling me something about their day and say it in local language. Kids adapt!

What I’ve always found amazing is how, even as small children, they could pick the right language to speak to someone — once, in a library, my then 4-yo turned to a child next to her and said something in the local language (despite mostly speaking English at that point).

I always have strong English-speaking au pairs so my children interact in English with people other than just me, and we often watch movies in English (although if they are watching alone, they’ll sometimes choose to watch in local language). I think the comments about having sufficient exposure (not just one person) and a motivation for it are really valid. Not helpful for the OP though, since our scenario is reversed. ;-)

Alex September 24, 2014 at 4:30 am

Speaking as an au pair, I must say how critical it is that the au pair and children establish a trusting relationship–in whatever language that might be. I am an au pair with a Spanish family, and when I arrived three weeks ago, my host mom made the rule that we only speak English in the house so the children can learn the language.

However, this rule wasn’t actually enforced until recently. Up until then, I was speaking to the children in Spanish. If I hadn’t been allowed to speak to them in Spanish, I don’t think they would have been nearly as comfortable with me and our relationship would have most likely gotten off to a rocky start.

CapitolHostMom September 24, 2014 at 6:33 am

Our first and third Au pairs spoke french and our second german and always to our now almost 2 year old. But English to the older children. We follow the OPOL approach to language, one person one language. It’s been helpful and baby is super responsive. No, he doesn’t always understand. But he doesn’t get everything in English either. It takes about two weeks to learn the language at the level he is at. From having older kids who are nearly teens, I’ve learned that every adult on a child’s life is going to be different and the sooner a child accepts this life lesson, the easier life is. Coaches, teachers, step parents, all have different philosophies. So what’s a different language in that mix. ;)

DCBurbTwinMomma September 24, 2014 at 6:41 am

We’ve had two Colombian au pairs and started Spanish immersion with them as infants. I select an au pair for her willingness to speak and read to my girls in Spanish only. The twins are now approaching 3 and speak English only to dad, Spanish to the au pair and both to me. Bilingualism is very important to us and we chose the au pair program over a live-out nanny largely for language immersion. It can work!

European Au Pair in Finland September 24, 2014 at 8:11 am

I was an au pair in Finland, the main reason my host family wanted an au pair was to have a native English speaker in their home. I arrived knowing very little Finnish and only the eldest child had any knowledge of English at that point.

We spoke a mixture of English and Finnish as we all progressed in our new languages. I sometimes switched to Finnish if a child was extra frustrated at not being able to communicate something but would then usually repeat it or have them say it in English afterwards. If I had any doubt whether they understood a safety instruction I’d always say it in FInnish too. Of course we did a lot of drawing and miming to help out as well, especially at first.

The local library had an English section so I was able to read them lots of story books. The ones that have a phrase that’s repeated over and over again in the book are great. It was intersting that they all loved listening to stories in English, even before the understood them at all. I think it sometimes helped that they could see me struggling a bit in Finnish too. When ever they had English homework they always wanted to test me on my Finnish vocabulary aswell.

They all made a lot of progress over the year and the family got anither English speaker when I left. Of course we had plenty of interseting times when our languages failed us. The first day I was alone with the youngest he locked himself in the toilet and started crying. I found myself sitting outside the door with my dictionary, desperately trying to find something helpful to say! Then there was the time I, a little too sharply, told one of the kids to eat at the table. I wondered why he looked so confused until the eldest pointed out that I’d actually told him to eat the table itself. Grr, foreign grammar rules!

meanwhile in canada September 24, 2014 at 1:28 pm

one of the reasons the ap program appealed to us was the language piece. i speak one language to our two children, and my husband speaks another. my husband’s language is one of the official languages of our country, so finding resources outside the home for that language is easier. “my” language is the one that is more difficult to maintain, & developing positive relationships with people for whom that is a native language is a priority for us, as this results in additional positive associations with the language. our son is 5 now and completely fluent in the two home languages + the dominant local language. (our daughter is only 11 months, but has been mostly at home with me & now the ap, so “my” language will be the dominant one for her, at least at the beginning.)
just to contextualize my comments a bit: i am an applied linguist/language teacher by training, and if the language is a priority for the op, i would strongly discourage beginning to develop a relationship in english and then switching to the target language later down the load, as this will likely result in even more resistance and frustration from the child later on, and also have a (perhaps even more negative) effect on the relationship at that point. as other posters have said, connecting via personality and manner is more important than language, but it is up to the family to decide what the priority is. i would suggest that as much language use as possible be play-based when it is still very unfamiliar to the child- finger games, songs, etc. as well as familiar tv shows or movies and books to draw the child in and see the language as enjoyable and fun.
good luck!! raising multilingual children is difficult, and does require some sacrifices, but is definitely doable.

WarmStateMomma September 24, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Favorite foods are a great place to start, too. My daughter knows she’s more likely to get treats if she asks for them in Mandarin because we encourage her to speak it as often as possible. :)

meanwhile in canada September 25, 2014 at 12:24 pm

+1

LondonMum September 24, 2014 at 3:07 pm

I think if you can get your children to speak, or at least have some understanding of, your own native language, it’s really so valuable and rewarding to them as they have a connection with your culture (even if it’s not their culture). When my boys were young, I didn’t bother teaching them my language as it is only spoken in the country I’m from and of no use globally at all! They know some words and phrases that I use in every day speaking, which is lovely as they use those words/phrases too (although I often get the AP saying “what does x mean?” as they think it’s a weird English word they haven’t heard before!). Now, my boys hear me speaking to my parents in my own language but they don’t understand all that is being said. I feel like it’s the end of the line for that side of their heritage and I deeply regret not teaching them the language, it makes me feel quite sad! I guess I was worried that they would confuse the two languages and this would hold them back at school (they start school at 4 here), too late now :(

WorkingMomX September 25, 2014 at 8:43 am

I agree with this post as well. My kids learned the German and French alphabets, a few songs, a number of words. When they were little, they argued once in German and I needed to have my au pair translate, which was a little startling. (My knowledge of German is limited to asking directions but not understanding the responses, and various kinds of food.) A lot of au pairs who speak Spanish or Mandarin participate in the program in part to improve their English. Some of them will resist having to speak it in the home. If you do find an au pair who agrees to essentially teach the children their language, keep in mind that this layers complexity into the relationship and could actually impede forming a bond.

I think another important thing for host families to remember if they do want an au pair to speak their native language in the home is that you’ve got to support the au pair’s desire to improve her English, and maybe this means allowing her to take more classes than are required. Where I live, an au pair can take ESL classes 4 nights a week. Some families can’t manage this due to the schedule. In that situation, perhaps it’s best to figure out a compromise that allows an au pair to get the practice and instruction she’s seeking while allowing your children to improve their knowledge of another language.

WarmStateMomma September 25, 2014 at 10:07 am

I agree with this. The Chinese AP candidates I’ve spoken with all have the same primary goal of improving their English. The Chinese APs I know (and know of) tend to socialize primarily with Chinese people or the host family, so formal ESL classes might be a more effective option than speaking English in everyday life.

WestMom September 25, 2014 at 2:20 pm

After 6yrs in the program, I agree that speaking the APs native language in the home may hinder her ability to learn English. We are very clear about this before we match, and let AP know that learning English will be very much the result of her own initiative, and we will do whatever we can to help. In practice though, there are so many French APs in our area and they tend to look for one another and stick together. As a result, our last 3 APS haven’t really made much of an effort to practice English outside our home. Gladly, none of them had ‘being fluent in English’ as a goal before they arrived. Although I am sure they will feel they missed an opportunity.

Old China Hand September 25, 2014 at 8:27 pm

This makes a lot of sense to me. For us, with mandarin speaking aps (ok, one so far but I will soon be looking for number 2), the bonus of me understanding the culture helped a lot with the disadvantage of speaking only Chinese at home. There are tons of opportunities for free classes in our town and no other aps to socialize with. There are, however, Chinese students to befriend. In any case, our ap ended up not making tons of Chinese friends, but did have some.

MamaGigi September 25, 2014 at 3:46 pm

I’m not sure this matters much, but most of our Au Pair’s friends have been frustrated when they had to speak their native language with the kids because they came here to get better at english. We’ve only had native english speakers so far.

L. September 25, 2014 at 11:08 pm

We only considered spanish speakers and it is absolutely essential to me that our AP speak only in Spanish to my toddler and baby right from the beginning. I picked an AP with rather weak English because I like her and because I think it will lessen the risk of her giving up on speaking in Spanish to the kids. She arrives tomorrow! Our first ever AP! I am super psyched and super nervous and kind of overwhelmed to think about what a big change this is for all of us.

exaupair September 27, 2014 at 8:41 am

Don’t they come to the US to learn English?

WarmStateMomma September 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm

@Exaupair: the AP won’t learn English from a toddler or baby, but she may teach the toddler/baby to speak English incorrectly. APs who want to practice English with host kids should find a family with older kids who already speak English well.

skny September 27, 2014 at 4:13 pm

I agree. I would not have an au pair with poor English work with me if she would be speaking English to a young child. Broken English to fix later on

LondonMum October 2, 2014 at 12:07 pm

I understand an AP won’t necessarily learn English from a toddler but I do think that speaking English all the time gives the AP the ability to start to think in English instead of doing the translation I her head before speaking. This will, without doubt, help them to become fluent more quickly, they will even start to dream in English!

Fair enough if you want to employ an AP to speak a specific language to your children, but I think it will slow down the AP’s progress in learning English. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, just that, saying it won’t make a difference to the AP’s learning English because your child is a toddler is not a valid argument IMO. Just my 2 cents!

hOstCDmom October 2, 2014 at 1:29 pm

I agree – there is a tension between the AP learning English and the HK learning AP’s language. One side gains, the other side loses. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but if AP speaks her language with HK, she will be definition speak less English. In my case, I prioritize my HK learning the AP’s language over the AP’s learning English. I am open about this, up front, full disclosure. Some might say it isn’t fair to the AP; maybe not, but lots of things aren’t fair. I am hiring for a specific job description, not engaging in a charitable endeavor. Thus, anyone who doesn’t like the job I have on offer need not apply/need not accept it.

WarmStateMomma October 2, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Agreed that there is a certain degree of disadvantage to the AP if she’s speaking her first language with the toddler instead of practicing English but I think the disadvantage to the AP is quite limited. We hosted two foreign exchange students at the same time (different first languages) and they really didn’t help each other improve their English even though they talked together all the time. I just don’t think the APs can learn very much from someone who doesn’t speak English well – otherwise they’d speak better English after studying it for 10+ years with their Chinese-born English teachers.

At the end of the day, my toddler is also learning English and the marginal benefit to the AP isn’t worth impairing my toddler’s English acquisition.

HRHM October 3, 2014 at 10:19 am

My kids are older so they MAY improve the AP’s english somewhat, but I consider it more MY job to engage her in conversation and correct her grammer and usage and pronunciation. I’ve been lucky in that all of my APs have has pretty strong English to begin with so I spend their year having conversations that really help push the boundries into more advanced vocabulary, proper idiom use and finer distinctions of meaning. Many of these conversation revolve around cultural differences (healthcare delivery, educational systems, parenting philosophies, work/life balance) and I think they are a great chance to foster an understanding in both directions of the similarities and differences between the two cultures.

A realize that not all HMs have the time/energy/interest to do this regularly – I sit for nearly an hour after dinner many nights with my current AP. I also realize not all APs are interested either. But when possible, it benefits on so many levels…

Gretchen September 27, 2014 at 8:53 am

Yes, they come to the US to improve their English. However, talking to small children is not the best way to learn any language! Talking to other adults and taking their required classes (in English) will improve their abilities.

In our case, all 5 of our au pairs have said that switching back and forth between German with the children and English with everyone else was much more useful than speaking English only. It forced their brains to work harder and they learned the language much better. It was difficult for the first month, but then became easier for them than their other au pair friends. All of our previous au pairs have chosen to take the TOEFL exam at the end of their year here. Their school range from a low of 92% to a high of 98%. They learned English with no problem!

I think the greatest obstacle to au pairs speaking English is becoming friends only with the other au pairs from their own country. Which means in their social time, they are not speaking English. The au pairs who learn the language best are those who become friends with native English speakers who are in their own age range.

WarmStateMomma September 27, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Another obstacle to learning English: using the internet to keep in touch with friends and family back home, watch movies in the native language, etc. Years ago, APs and exchange students had to rely on phone calls, letters, and occasional visits to internet cafes to reach home and could immerse themselves in the host country’s language. True immersion is tougher now because it’s harder to separate from your home culture/language.

Returning HM September 27, 2014 at 9:38 pm

I actually talk to all our APs about this and really encourage them to find even one close friend who doesn’t speak their language. In this case, they are forced to speak English even in their off-time as a means of communicating with each other, as it’s the one common language. Our three APs who did this – two of whom spoke German but befriended French APs and one who spoke Portuguese but befriended a Spanish speaker – all improved their English exponentially. One even improved so much that she went home and started university training to become a teacher of English in Germany.

MassMom September 29, 2014 at 11:01 am

I think it’s important to remember that the au pair is also hoping to develop her language skills, and that initially much of her interaction will be with the children. Our au pair (whose English was already very good when she arrived) spoke primarily English with our kids for the first couple of months, and she said our 5-year-old was actually pretty helpful in helping her understand what different words meant (as well as other things, like that half and half is “coffee milk” and not for drinking). :) Once they were all comfortable with each other, and she was more confident with her English, she switched to speaking primarily German with them. My husband has always spoken German to the kids, but it wasn’t until our au pair arrived that my oldest became totally comfortable speaking German, and now he is compeletely bilingual. I think it probably depends quite a bit on the initial second language skills of both the au pair and the host children whether you can go whole hog from the beginning or not.

Didis October 2, 2014 at 10:43 am

I think it might be too much for a child and au pair to push them into speaking foreigner language without something easing into it.

Get some flash cards and games they can start playing,
make a goal with your au pair what should be done on daily/weekly basis to improve it,
make them get books on foreign language and ease into it.
music,
movies,
and little by little after few months she can start talking all the way foreign language.
your au pair might be able to get progress with a child in his language learning process, but you might lose some other valuable lessons she could teach him, if all she does is (being frustrated) repeat and repeat all over words until he memorize them.
my 2 cents :)

Mimi October 28, 2014 at 9:50 pm

I know I’m late to this thread but I wanted to weigh in on the idea of young children learning poor English from the APs. We had this issue and it can be really damaging to at risk kids.

When my twins were younger we had an AP from the Ukraine who had a very thick accent. We take a very casual approach to learning languages and only had asked her to teach the boys random words like please/thank you/goodbye. They were getting speech therapy as part of the birth to three program because of a speech delay where we then realized that they had developed some pronunciation issues separately because of her accent.

Our speech therapist was really great about helping the AP with her English and recommending learning tools for her to benefit everyone. Since their speech therapy was during her work hours, she got a lot of repetitive instruction in phonics and the boys were able to correct the bad pronunciation they were mimicking.

Ironically, our last AP (who was Italian and spoke poor English) would often get help from the twins with pronunciation and word use. So even 5 y/o’s can have a significant impact on AP English skills.

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