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.
Conceptually, 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