English Words That Every Au Pair Should Really Understand

by cv harquail on July 28, 2014

It’s easier to relax about your new au pair when s/he demonstrates a real command for the US version of the English Language.  

I was thinking about this as I was perusing something called the “Academic Word List”, a list of 570 words that researchers think people should know if they plan to study at the tertiary level. Or something. I didn’t quite understand it. Which is interesting because I know a lot of words.


But the list made me wonder–

What words does an Au Pair need to know to understand life with children and a family in the USA?  

[[ I’ve been wanted to create a glossary of Au Pair Program-related words (e.g., ‘rematch’ and ‘part of the family’ — so let’s save those words for another post.]]

Even when you know the literal translation of a word or phrase, you can be wrong.

For example:

Baby Changing Station: A table area usually in a women’s rest room and increasingly seen in men’s rooms too, that’s designed to make it easier to change a child’s diaper.  Often has straps for anchoring the baby into the table. Please use a pad underneath the host baby because who knows how clean these things are?

(Note: this is not a place where you can drop off the baby you have and get a different one. Also, it is not a place where you can take a baby to have someone else teach him/her how to stop crying.)

Have you ever noticed a word that your au pair really didn’t quite ‘get’?   Please share, so we can make the world more comprehensible.


WarmStateMomma July 28, 2014 at 4:41 pm

“Pantry” and “closet.” The kitchen storage is a pantry; the bedroom storage is a closet.

“Stir-fry” or “sauté”. HD has visions of deep-fried goodness when an AP plans to “fry” something for dinner, only to realize she meant stir-fry. (Still good, but not what he was expecting.)

The different words for pasta, like linguine, spaghetti, etc., which are all over
American menus. My APs don’t realize they are usually different shapes/sizes of the same material.

American translations of any British terms: wardrobe (piece of furniture vs. collection of clothes), chips (French fries), etc.

“Classical music” – my APs have both arrived thinking this is called “soft music,” so I think it’s a common mis-translation in China.

“Grilled” vs. “barbecued.” My APs use “barbecued” when they mean “grilled.” They do, however, enjoy BBQ. :)

AmericanAP in Germany July 29, 2014 at 5:04 am

As an American, what’s the difference between BBQ and grilling!? Does BBQ have to actually contain barbecue sauce? I definitely use them interchangeably haha. Might depend on what area of the country you’re from ;)

WarmStateMomma July 29, 2014 at 7:59 am

Grilled food is cooked on the grill, and can be any flavor. BBQ involves BBQ sauce (or a spice rub with similar flavors) and can be grilled or smoked. “BBQ sauce” refers to a fairly particular flavor. Burgers and hot dogs are grilled, but they aren’t BBQ.

I’m in the south and BBQ is pretty serious business here. :)

Should be working July 29, 2014 at 12:57 pm

I confess I never knew this. BBQ has to involve BBQ sauce, really? And isn’t grilling also sometimes what people say they are doing when they dry-fry something on the stove, like a piece of fish? When a restaurant says “grilled sea bass” they aren’t out back with a grill, right?

WarmStateMomma July 29, 2014 at 1:10 pm

BBQ involves sauce or rub, to my understanding. Most restaurants don’t “grill” food; they usually cook it on a flat metal cooktop (like you see on a hibachi table). I’ve seen grill grates at a few restaurants, but most are cooked on a flat surface. I haven’t heard of fried food being called “BBQ.”

Steak, fruit, pizza, corn and fish can be grilled, but they aren’t BBQ in my neck of the woods. Maybe TexasHM can weigh in on this important issue. :)

Multitasking Host Mom July 29, 2014 at 5:03 pm

I am laughing to myself about this:) The part of the U.S. I am from says BBQ when they mean just grilling outside….the food made is normally hot dogs or hamburgers. When I moved to the deep south, I quickly learned that even Americans say words that mean different things. We invited our new neighbors over for BBQ and served hamburgers cooked on the grill. I couldn’t figure out way they kept asking where the BBQ was!! Finally someone told me why everyone was so confused since my BBQ didn’t seem to involve any pork or sauce. And you are right southerners take it very seriously. Now that I live back up north I really miss those good pulled pork sandwich covered in sauce!!

Multitasking Host Mom July 29, 2014 at 5:16 pm

To expand more on this topic….I have lived in two different parts of the country and have also traveled a lot in the U.S. over the years. Even I have had to learn different words, such as…. Bubbler means water fountain. Nylons mean pantyhose. Parkway means highway. Yard, garage and rummage sales all the same things. And I can pretty much tell what part of the country you are from based on if you say coke, pop, or soda.

NJHostDad July 29, 2014 at 6:37 pm

BBQ is a long, slow, low-heat method of cooking, almost always but not necessarily with a dry rub or sauce. There are distinct regional differences in the rub/sauce — Carolina vinegar-based sauces, Kentucky use of mutton — usually with a dipping sauce, Memphis style, rubbed and sauced, Texas with hotter sauces, and Kansas city — a sweeter, tomato and tomato/molasses sauce. In the rest of America, BBQ usually means grilled foods with a Kansas City type of sauce.
Grilled is a very high heat, quick cooking. I would expect to see grill marks on any restaurant food denoted as “grilled”.
There are lots of regional differences in terms, like soda/pop/coke, bag/sack.
One difference i always forget with our German au pairs is they always remark that we have a large garden — to me, we don’t have a garden at all, no separate area with flowers or vegetables, we have a yard.

LondonMum July 30, 2014 at 9:11 am

In UK, BBQ is cooked outside on a BBQ, grilled is in the top part of the oven and dry fried in a pan is pan fried, fried in oil is deep fried. BBQ has nothing to do with sauce, if you add that you simply say it has BBQ sauce on it!

Also, on this site many people talk about “picking up” the living room/ kitchen, and it always makes me smile as I have a mental image of someone holding up an entire room above their head, in UK we would say “tidy up”.

My kids sometimes have the confusion with some APs (who learn English from American TV shows) about words like pants/trousers, vest/singlet, done/finished, and as already mentioned, “fanny” they find hilarious as my kids are boys and obviously don’t have one!

Seattle Mom July 30, 2014 at 11:19 am

I’m with Multitasking Host Mom, I’ve lived in two parts of the US (not the south) and I never thought that BBQ meant something had to have a sauce or a rub- just that it’s cooked outside on a grill!

And I’ve had grilled vegetables that were definitely cooked in an oven (I think slathered with olive oil & salt, and broiled- but I’m no cook I’m just pretty sure I’ve seen that recipe).

I also just returned from a business trip to the UK. It was sort of maddening dealing with all the language differences. It did cause confusion in a few instances. It was important for me to know what was going on because I was the main liaison between our group from the US and our UK contractors who were making a lot of arrangements and providing all sorts of services for us.

WarmStateMomma July 30, 2014 at 10:51 am

@LondonMum: My husband and I were watching “An Idiot Abroad” and had to google a lot of the expressions used throughout the show, but the accents are so charming! We could listen to Brits speak English all day long. :)

LondonMum July 30, 2014 at 2:33 pm

WSM Haha! The “idiot” is from the north, I think Manchester, and Ricky Gervaise and his mate are from Bristol in the south I think, so very different accents. My AP from Denmark and I used to watch that show, she thought it was hilarious! We are on holiday at the moment (in Spain) and a Northern English boy today asked why my 6 year old says “f” instead of “th” and I had to explain it was because he has a London accent! language is so wonderful!

Host Mom X July 28, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Well, this isn’t really a constructive answer for this thread, but we knew that one au pair’s receptive English skills were just not going to be able to cut it when, after three weeks with our children (during which we had directed her to new-arrival ESL classes, given her several books to practice with at night, directed her to some online listening programs, etc.), she asked our prior au pair (who had stopped off for one last visit before heading back home after her travel month), “what does ‘want’ mean? The 2 year old keeps saying ‘I want ____.'” What does she mean?

WarmStateMomma July 28, 2014 at 5:06 pm

LOL. It doesn’t sound like English was the problem so much as common sense….

Au pair July 29, 2014 at 8:09 am

But then I wonder, how did you NOT figure out her bad English when you talked to her on the phone? It sounds like the fault here is on your side. Unless she had her friend speak for her, you could have figured that her English is bad a long time ago.

NoVA Twin Mom July 29, 2014 at 8:29 am

Sometimes we know an au pair’s English is bad, but not quite how bad. Maybe she *really* practiced before skype interviews, sometimes we imagine that a candidate’s problems with English during skype interviews can be attributed to nerves (we’re a little nervous too during interviews), and maybe the letters/emails we’ve seen have been reviewed by friends/relatives before they were sent.

What would have bothered me most about Host Mom X’s situation is *not* that the au pair didn’t know a fairly basic word, that she says the au pair had been in her home for THREE WEEKS without using one of the many resources HMX had provided to her to figure out the word that the host kid kept saying.

And really, if a little kid says “I XXXX cookie”, “I XXXX drink”, “I XXXX toy” – how hard is it to just give them the object they’re saying? Two year olds don’t have a huge variety in their vocabulary – start thinking of words that make sense to have go there – want, need, and like are three possibilities – instead of passively wondering about the meaning and not asking the host parents, ESL teachers, or even an online dictionary to find out the meaning.

So even if they knew she had bad English, her inability to work with the situation compounded the problem.

Au pair July 29, 2014 at 9:20 am

I totally get what your saying. But depending on where she is from, she might not even understand toy, or cookie, drink etc. don’t get me wrong, but do you know a second language? If so, were you thrown into the cold water, e.g worked for someone, in a foreign country where you didn’t know anyone? The reason why I am so passionated about this topic is, because I came here with NO English! The agency helped me to somehow find a family, because I had lots of experience. Over 10’000h. Of course, google translator was my best friend, and I always had a dictionary with me. That doesn’t deny the fact that I sometimes had trouble with the easiest words, such as want and awesome. Yes I worked hard, and if she isn’t working hard, she doesn’t deserve to be there. But keep in mind, it takes more than just three weeks to get adjusted to a new language, home and family.

NoVA Twin Mom July 29, 2014 at 10:13 am

I don’t want to get in an argument with you, but since you asked directly, yes. I’m fluent in both English and German. I studied abroad in college in what used to be East Berlin, at a time when very few people there spoke English – and none of those English speakers were anyone I knew. Until a few years before I arrived, Russian was seen as a much more useful second language than English. My “host” family and my professors spoke only German – or sometimes German and Russian (or a little Czech). I knew no one before arriving in that city, and didn’t even have the name of an LCC-type person there. We had a coordinator, but the structure in place wasn’t nearly as “warm and fuzzy” as the au pair program. I had a few years of German in high school and college before studying abroad, but as you point out, that’s not the same thing as being fully immersed.

So – at the age of 20, I was “thrown into the cold water” as you put it, living with a family I didn’t know, being expected to speak another language every day. Many of the other host parents on this board have as well – that’s generally one of the reasons that we’re even willing to consider a child care program where we quite possibly won’t be able to understand our child care provider.

Which is why I – and it seems you – developed coping strategies for dealing with language problems. When I was in Germany, the internet was barely available to the American public, much less the (east) German public. Google translate wasn’t available, just book dictionaries and *asking* about words I didn’t know.

Host families, as a whole, are willing to deal with some language difficulties. But turning the question around onto the host family – asking if it wasn’t their fault for not realizing just HOW bad their au pair’s English was – was something I wanted to address. Because letting three weeks go by without asking what a word a two year old uses many times a day is too long. Three days? Fine. Three weeks is too long given how many resources the host family in question here gave to the au pair. There was even an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher available for her to ask if she was too embarrassed to ask her host family.

WarmStateMomma July 29, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Agreed with NovaTwinMom. Many HPs have done it without the conveniences APs have today. (I filled in for a receptionist during an internship in Moscow and readily admit that it was a challenge.) Foreign jobs and home stays are not for everyone.

Taking a Computer Lunch July 29, 2014 at 12:27 pm

I’d like to add, too, that many APs learn English from a non-native speaker. It can be a daunting transition to listening to a native speaker – there are varieties in pronunciation, rates of speed, and then as our own children speak. It is difficult. A great AP asks questions, a good AP looks it up, and mediocre AP hides the fact that she doesn’t have a clue.

Now, being fair, we do warn APs that child #2 speaks incomprehensibly fast, sometimes even to us. When I don’t understand him at the table, I say, “Wha? Wha? Wha?” as a clue to the AP that its acceptable to slow him down and make him repeat.

When DH lived in the Soviet Union, he was befriended by a bilingual family. Even though the little girl went to an English-language school, he could barely understand a word she said.

Many HF have been thrown into situations where they used their second (third, or fourth) language in a foreign country. Because we get it, we’re patient. It’s a major reason to host an AP for me.

Au pair July 30, 2014 at 11:14 am

NoVA mom: I totally agree with you that she should have asked a long time ago. She seems not to be interested at all, so yes, I probably wouldn’t want her to be my au pair either. I am glad you experienced the same thing “most” au pairs go through. But all in all I always say: because I was thrown into the cold water, I wasn’t ashamed to have my 4 year old host child teach me English. It’s all about how much the au pair wants to learn. Even though my first tongue was very common, and many au pairs spoke it. I never hung out with them. It drove me crazy when the german au pairs formed their little group and only spoke german. At the end of their stay, their English wasn’t much better from the time they started. So au pairs: hang out with people that “force” you to speak English, and if you just can’t, at least speak English when people are around that don’t speak your language.

Host Mom X July 29, 2014 at 10:28 am

Au pair – totally agree; we did a VERY poor job interviewing and matching in that case, and have since become a lot more skilled at the interviewing process. As NoVA Twin Mom points out, we host parents might sometimes look past poor English skills (or anything, really) in an interview because we attribute it to nerves, etc. In our case, this woman was interviewing to be our second au pair. Prior to au pairs, we had a professional nanny. Our nanny had VERY poor English, but was a skilled childcare professional – really wonderful with our kids. (And she had lived in the U.S. for 15 years at that point, so she knew how to get by; she spoke Spanish and Spanish is very commonly spoken in our city, and she knew the English she needed to know.) So our attitude was that English skills weren’t so important, could be learned, etc., as long as everything else was right. And we did actually have a friend of our then-current au pair who spoke the new AP’s language help us with translating, and on her end, the AP had her boyfriend translating, and we actually had two really fun, engaging conversations. We attributed her poor English skills to nerves (she told us she had been taking classes and was actually much better when she wasn’t nervous, and we believed her, since that is a plausible story!). We also at that time were terrible at asking the right questions, and didn’t have the patience to keep interviewing candidate after candidate, so we didn’t suss out any of the other important AP qualities we now look for (e.g. common sense!).

Anyway, this AP would send us very well-written emails (now I assume typed by the boyfriend) after we matched, and told us that she was taking English classes, interning at a daycare. I now do not think any of this could have been true.

She arrived and we knew immediately we had made a big mistake. She was a very sweet young woman, and our kids did like her, but the lack of language skills and common sense plus a big change happening in our lives at the time (we were moving cities) meant that we just couldn’t take the time to try to work on both the language AND the common sense. And luckily she was able to find a rematch family who really just needed someone to drive their older children around to activities after school (she was a good driver, and we did not require a driver at all, so I guess it was a good switch). We explained the language issues to the new family, and even though they did not speak her language, they said they were fine with it.

(This was a really odd language situation to me, because her receptive English was worse than her spoken English. Usually it is the other way around – most people can understand more than they are able to say in another language.)

Taking a Computer Lunch July 29, 2014 at 2:46 pm

We learned, very quickly that our instinct to ask non-yes/no questions served us well. When the only question an AP answers quickly is “Do you like cats?” then we know the interview is over.

We had a Chinese AP who could not for the life answer the simple question, “What did you do today?,” but if we asked how her family celebrated Chinese New Year she could give quite elaborate answers. Part of the vocabulary is comfort with the subject.

I love the moment in the year when I realize that the AP is suddenly laughing at child #2’s jokes, instead of staring at him incomprehensively with a slight frown, and contributes to the dinner conversation. The speed with which an AP becomes fluent enough to participate in family life depends on 2 factors – 1) facility with English at the beginning and 2) curiosity. AP #1 wasn’t particularly good at speaking English, but she had a good ear and could hear cognates (unfortunately she couldn’t always tell if they were false cognates) and she asked a ton of questions about idiomatic usage.

Seattle Mom July 30, 2014 at 11:39 am

I think intelligence and a willingness to learn can go a long way to overcome language difficulties. Those are hard to screen for, though. All of our APs have come with very limited english skills, and they have all improved to different degrees. They have all improved at least somewhat, and enough to function in our household, but the differences are kind of amazing. Our first AP had very low english language skills when she first arrived, and her goal was to achieve near-native fluency. She did. She ate dinner with us every evening, and paid attention to our conversations and contributed. She was involved in our lives and told us what was going on in her life. She also watched a lot of American TV. Our kids were only 3 and 1 so she didn’t learn much from them. At first she couldn’t understand our 3 year old at all, but then again neither could we half the time :). Our next two au pairs came with similar english limitations and learned a bit, but did not improve nearly as much for different reasons. I think both intelligence and drive account for why our first au pair was so much more successful.

It sounds like Host Mom X’s situation was an extreme case… to me it sounds like a combination of very low english level (which she knew about), combined with some lack of willingness & ability to learn and possibly intelligence. Hard to know exactly. And probably hard to screen for.

I had one AP who sounded very articulate on skype and tested at a pretty high english level, but whenever we asked her to do something she wasn’t too keen on she would suddenly not understand us. She could talk on and on about any subject but she was not a good listener, which I think went beyond language acquisition skills. We ended up rematching, and that was only a small part of the reason (but it was all related to her personality which we found extremely irritating).

Taking a Computer Lunch July 30, 2014 at 2:04 pm

One of my more curious AP’s asked what “lip service” meant. I told her, “When I ask you to do something, and you say ‘yes,’ even though you have no intention of doing it – that’s lip service.”

It’s always frustrating when I ask an AP to do a task that will save me an enormous amount of effort in the evening (and permit me to do other things at home – usually a couple of loads of laundry), and she tells me yes, and then doesn’t do it. I’d rather be told, “I have plans” than to come home and find it hasn’t been done and I have to squeeze it into my already packed evening routine.

WarmStateMomma July 29, 2014 at 10:47 am

Skype is difficult for APs in countries with bad internet connections. We can’t talk have much of a Skype conversation with APs in China because it keeps breaking up and stalling.

ExAuPair August 21, 2014 at 9:57 am

I once rejected an au pair applicant (I screen for an agency in my home country) for asking me, about 60 minutes into filling out the stupid psychometric test (75 questions, usually takes about 20/30 minutes for an average applicant to fill out), what “had” meant. “Had” is in about every question of the test the agency uses to screen the applicants (question 1 is “I had to lie to avoid trouble”) and not only did she not know what it meant she didn’t even realize it was a verb.

Maybe I should give her credit for just mixing it up with the homophone “head” (Kopf) but I still have to see one sentence where you could just exchange those two and still have a grammatical sentence and really hatte & Kopf aren’t very close in German. Aaaaaaand she was just getting her Abitur, enabling her to head off to university, with nine years of English under her belt.

Of course it wasn’t only that ;) but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Or as one of my friends usually puts it “Well, she hadn’t invented the soup plates” (which isn’t a real German idiom but sums it up quite well, I guess), bless her poor little heart.

TwinMomHMBoston July 28, 2014 at 9:58 pm

I had to explain the word “potty” to our first au pair but then I had to be sure to tell her that it wasn’t a word she should use when lookng for the bathroom by herself with no kids in tow. We had a good laugh about it together!

Amelie July 29, 2014 at 2:36 pm

I had lots of au pair friends (Brazilian) who didn’t know what ‘potty’ means for a long while. It put them in very difficult situations with small children.

Seattle Mom July 30, 2014 at 11:41 am

That is awesome!

It never occurred to me to teach the word potty.. I’m guessing our APs just figured it out, or maybe they asked their AP friends.

NZ HM July 29, 2014 at 6:16 am

A word the AP didn’t quite get? “clean up after yourself” but as above I feel English wasn’t the problem here either… ;-)

Returning HM July 29, 2014 at 9:45 am

This isn’t a word but more a concept that needs definiting: When I say “pick up child at x time,” I mean AP should be THERE to get him at x time, not leaving to get him at x time. We had one (otherwise excellent) AP who was ALWAYS late in her first month or so. I had asked her to pick my son up at 5, and at 5 that afternoon (I was working from home), there she was, casually gathering her things together to leave to go get him. Well, my son’s playdate from where he was supposed to be picked up was a good half hour away in no traffic, and this was 5pm on a Friday. Suffice it to say that it would take her a good 45 minutes to get there. When I asked her why she was still home, she said that I had told her to “go pick up child at 5pm.” Put that way, I absolutely saw her point! I now make sure to write on our schedule, “Leave at 4:30 to get child at 5pm.” After this discussion, excellent AP was no longer late anymore — turns out my wording on the schedule had been confusing to her. :-)

The other thing I have learned to do is to explain that Tylenol is acetominophen (or however you spell it), and advil is ibuprofen. I didn’t realize until midway through our first AP’s year back in 2005 that literally no pain reliever or fever reducer in my house carries the brand by which I call it, so instructing my AP to give my child some Tylenol or advil was pretty useless!

HRHM July 29, 2014 at 10:53 am

I would also recommend having a conversation very early on about what pain relievers are available OTC in her country. Most of EU uses paracetamol (sp) which is the tylenol equivalent, also some have ibuprofen. Depending on her country of origin, she may have NO experience with any OTC meds (one AP used tiger balm on the forehead for headache and vinegar on the feet for fever…) so if you plan on letting her medicate your kids, sit down with her right away and go over the meds (with them in hand) that she may use and have her write down in her language, the proper dose for each kid and then repeat it back to you. This is one area where you can’t afford to let mistakes happen for sure.

Dorsi July 29, 2014 at 10:26 am

A pet peeve is the word “career” — in Spanish it appears to mean something like “course of study”. 20 year-olds introduce themselves as having completed a “career” talk about going back to their “career”. This seems super petty as I write it out, but three APs in a row with similar language quirks means a few of them grate.

“Straight” — as a direction for driving is one that APs don’t seem to know until we have our first driving session. I have learned to do a review of all of the car directions before we pull out of the driving.

Not words, but concepts we teach every year to our surprised APs: garbage disposal, can opener, crock pot.

Host Mom X July 29, 2014 at 10:32 am

Our Japanese AP introduced us to the rice cooker (well, we knew about them, but only bought one when we knew we had a Japanese AP on the way), and I cannot believe that this marvelous cooking invention is not more common in American kitchens. But apparently it is not common in European or South American kitchens either, and we have taught several pleasantly surprised APs about the wonder of rice cookers!

Emerald City HM July 30, 2014 at 2:26 am

We actually introduced our Japanese au pair to a rice cooker. Haha. Though we didn’t buy one until just before she arrived.

I love the thing, it makes it so easy to stream vegetables and make oatmeal too.

Emerald City HM July 30, 2014 at 2:28 am

I just re-read your comment and now I’m curious. Did your Japanese au pair have experience with the rice cooker? I was fairly surprised that ours did not.

Seattle Mom July 30, 2014 at 11:44 am

DH learned all about rice cookers in Japan, so I am guessing they are common there. We have always had one.

Host Mom X July 31, 2014 at 11:23 am

Yes – and she did all kinds of crazy-cool things with it, mixing rice with other stuff, etc. We asked her if she’d want/need a rice cooker for when she arrived in our home and she said “yes please!”

spanishaupair July 29, 2014 at 11:35 am

Yes “career” is kind of false friend with spanis “carrera” what is used for university studies. Most spanish people i have heard talking english use “career” wrong until someone tells us the meaning.

Skny July 29, 2014 at 10:26 pm

Yeah… Straight was a hard one for me.
I also had (and still have trouble pronounce similar words a different way: sheet vs shit, brat vs Brett, rob vs Robbie (and yes I still occasionally add e to everything(e). Although 11hs later it is a lot better

Amelie July 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

You’re Brazilian, right, SKNY?

Adding the a vowel sound in the end of words is very common for us.

I’m an former au pair and for almost my entire year I could not pronounce “Nick”, my HK name, but only “Nicky”.

WestMom July 29, 2014 at 11:17 am

‘Bleach’ is a pretty important one :)

I’d say cuts of meats are a good thing to teach in our family of foodies. Our APs are responsible for 1-2 meals per week and pick up the groceries they need. For them beef is beef, regardless if it’s ‘chuck’ or ‘rib eye’… We have experienced both really chewy steaks and accidentally very expensive (yet tender) stir frys…

Also terms to describe milk. We buy organic 2%, which seems to take a few weeks/months for APs to locate in the supermarket. Many are intimidated by our milk aisle… Where our APs come from, milk is not refrigerated, and you have two choice: creamy, or 1/2 creamy. And organic is ‘bio’.

A few more food related topic: Baking soda and baking powder are not in our APs baking culture… and neither is measuring with imperial measures! Recipes are a GREAT way to learn English by the way… Even if means making a few disasters in the kitchen :)

WestMom July 29, 2014 at 11:18 am

Sorry for the double post! CV, can you pls remove?

WarmStateMomma July 29, 2014 at 11:48 am

Yep. AP#2 feels the same way about cheese and chocolate.

WestMom July 29, 2014 at 12:02 pm

She must not be French ;)

WarmStateMomma July 29, 2014 at 12:17 pm

Nope. It makes me a little sad for her to have lived 25 years without enjoying good cheese, chocolate or wine.

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Um, I hope you don’t mean American chocolate when you say GOOD chocolate :D I’m really not a gourmet, but I swear Hers…chocolate tastes like vomit. (I mean it actually has the same taste as vomit…) Once I’d pointed that out to my fellow Europeans, everyone agreed :D

German Au-Pair July 29, 2014 at 9:01 pm

The British vs. American part is really important. My kids couldn’t stop laughing when I called the Z “zett”. Other APs seem to have asked their school aged children for a rubber which caused some laughs, too. We learn British English in school and while you get used to the American pronunciation pretty fast, it’s hard to let go of words like flat. Plus the definition of the first floor is different in BE and AE.
Any word knowledge on kitchen utensiles is greatly appreaciated. I’d say my English is fluent and I can talk to you about genetic engineering because that’s what we do in school. But I felt like a total idiot when trying to find and describe things I might use in the kitchen.
Teach your AP the brand names that you use to refer to things regardless of brand. I did not know, that duck tape is not actually duck tape. We do that in every culture….paper towels, paper tissues etc. Plus tylenol is paracetamol.
The correct answer to “Do you mind?” is actually “No” even though almost everyone will say yes even though they don’t mind. (I still find that weird…)

4th time lucky?! July 29, 2014 at 9:32 pm

The duck tape is a funny one: it’s what we call it at home (NZ) as a joke; it’s actually called duct tape and a lot of people mispronounce it or speak quickly so that it sounds like ‘duck tape’. I had never heard of the Duck Tape brand and had to internet search to find out about it. I guess the company got the idea for the name from the misconception that it is called duck tape…

Taking a Computer Lunch July 29, 2014 at 9:43 pm

When I lived in Dublin I made the mistake of telling a 12-year-old boy that I could see his fanny – which only girls have in the British Isles and Ireland and boys definitely don’t! It made the fanny pack – usually worn facing forward to prevent theft, hysterically funny – once I knew of the different usage of the word.

And an aside – the brand name Duck Tape is just because nearly 100% of Americans mis-hear duct tape as duck tape. And now that there are so many cute versions, it seems a waste to use them on the heating and cooling systems!

My family usually surprises au pairs, because we use Yiddish constantly – so we say gesundheit, kitschy, schmutz, drek, and other words that will be familiar to German speakers. My father grew up in a German neighborhood in New York, so for years I was called dumkopf when I did something stupid. American English is incredibly fluid, as I think the comments have made clear – what doesn’t work in one city, will be perfectly fine in another.

And, for the record, I use grill and barbeque interchangeably, too. I’m obviously not from the South.

Returning HM July 30, 2014 at 9:34 pm

Ha – this made me laugh. My first week away on my Junior Year Abroad, I announced to a group of new British friends, as we were discussion different clothing styles in the States vs the UK, that I never wore pants. Little did I know at the time that in trying to explain that I always wore skirts or dresses, I had actually told them that I never wore underwear. Sigh. You can imagine the looks I got from the girls…and the boys…that night.

WarmStateMomma July 30, 2014 at 10:42 am

Kitchen stuff is hard because those words aren’t in textbooks or in everyday conversation outside the home. My APs have an especially hard time with it because most of what we use is new to them.

German Au-Pair July 30, 2014 at 11:50 am

Kitchen stuff is really hard, especially when you empty the dish washer and get asked where you put xy. It’s easier figuring out what the English word means than asking for it when you look for something specific. I would add “thingy” to every educated guess I made to indicate I had no clue what I was talking about. My kids loved helping me out though.

ExAuPair August 21, 2014 at 9:28 am

I was so lucky that my teacher actually had an American accent & taught us AE spelling and pronunciation! I now struggle at work – one of my bosses is from the US, one is from Australia (but lived in the UK for quite a while before moving here) and I constantly need to switch between tyre/tire, first floor / second floor, flat / apartment depending on who I am writing to ;) Pyre somehow still looks better with a y though.

But yes, duck tape for sure. I still call it that even when speaking German.

My word was “pacifier” – my English was all right but that was a word I had never seen spelled out. My family called it “paci” (sp?) and I heard “percy”. I though it was a strange word to call the thing a baby sucks on but hey… it wasn’t until my oldest boy said “What are you calling it? It’s not a percy, it’s a paci.”

One of my friends called the fridge refresh because that is what it sounded like when her host parents said it. And I still haven’t wrapped my head around the word ‘colander’… whenever I think of draining pasta sieve is the first word to come to my mind. Oh and of course pasta and noodle. And pepper (black pepper vs. bell pepper vs. allspice).

German Au-Pair July 29, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Oh and PLEASE, all you HPs. If you notice your AP keeps missusing a word..by all means -correct her.
Again, my English is pretty fluent, I love paying attention to language and therefore learn a lot. So after 1.5 years in the States I was MORTIFIED when a dear friend with native English and awesome German told me that I’d been missusing a word. I love everything that’s kitschy, you know, like Christmas is and cupcake-formed earrings are. The English word is almost exactly like the German word and in German the word can be positively and negativles connoted. Except I thought the correct translation was tacky for 1.5 years and would walk into stores (we had a LOT of stores that sold stuff like that…private stores, run by the owner…) or friends’ houses and happily announce how amazingly tacky everything was and how much I loooooved that. People must have thought I was insane(ly rude).
PLEASE let your au pair know :D

didis July 30, 2014 at 2:11 am

I have been using word ignorant as forgetful for almost two years. :)

German Au-Pair July 30, 2014 at 11:45 am

That’s a good one too :D “Don’t be so ignorant” :D

Germans seem to use irritating instead confusing because confused means irritiert in German. :D

German Au-Pair July 30, 2014 at 11:47 am

Oh and I recently learned the real meaning of our German term for (soccer) viewing parties…we call it public viewing :D In case a HF wonders about the weird hobbies her potential AP has :D

WarmStateMomma July 30, 2014 at 12:04 pm

LOL!! Our AP’s application said she has experience “lifeguarding.” To me, that sounds like she has been trained and employed at a pool, water park or beach to watch for people in trouble and then attempt to rescue them. We think she meant that she has generally ensured the safety of young children she was babysitting.

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Not necessarily. In Germany it’s not uncommon to actually receive training and get some kind of paper that identifies you as a lifeguard. My dad has one without ever having had a job in that area.
We have a system in which most young children (they usually do that in school) get certain badges for certain levels. The lowest is sea horse and means you can swim without drowning. Then bronce, silver, gold (I only ever made it to silver) each with certain requirements including written tests.
Here’s an overview:

She might even have some of the other life guard badge as the German wiki side goes further and names a “junior life guard” badge with two levels and an DLRG (the organization behind it) life guard badge. You could ask her about it to find out which one she has but when she put it on her application, she probably has one of the higher ones as having silver and gold is very very common. (I didn’t mention my silver one, but the agency may have advised her to mention it even if she “just” has gold.)

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Oh, I just noticed I assumed yoursd was German :D if she’s not, you might be right but it sounded very much like somethin we would write.

WarmStateMomma July 31, 2014 at 1:48 pm

@German: She’s probably at seahorse level – higher than many people from her country (China). I told her she can’t wear those inflatable arm things (“waterwings” / “swimmies”) at the neighborhood pool and she was surprised by that because she often wears them in the pool at home.

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Ooookay…never mind that then :D

WarmStateMomma July 30, 2014 at 10:35 am

LOL. I knew someone who was a high school exchange student in Central America. She tried to tell her host family that she was embarrassed about something. She thought it was a cognate of the English word and ended up telling the family that she was pregnant. Everyone freaked out until the miscommunication was sorted out.

Seattle Mom July 30, 2014 at 11:55 am

That is pretty funny. I had to read your comment twice because I thought you were using the word “kitschy” and I thought, there’s nothing wrong with saying you love kitschy things.. Kitschy is used here for both positive & negative, but you are right tacky is not a very nice thing to say :)

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 1:37 pm

In Germany kitschig can be used for both, too (even though the connotation tends towards bad) and I just naturally assumed that that would go for tacky, too. I was mortified when I found as I really do love everything kitschy…I know for sure that I once went to a store and said -smiling, happy- “wow, everything here is SO TACKY” and that I once asked where they’d moved that lovely corner with the tacky jewelry…I’m sure there were several other instances. I was so mortified when I found out.

Seattle Mom July 31, 2014 at 2:23 pm

I hope you had a strong enough accent so that they could guess you probably didn’t know what you were saying exactly!

Some of the German APs I’ve met have such good english that they have practically no accent- and then it is harder to get away with making those kinds of mistakes.

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Depends on who you ask. Since I lived in the South, people knew right away I wasn’t from their neck of the woods but it really depends on how educated/travelled people were wether they realized how foreign my accent actually was. I’ve heard everything from “Are you from Sweden?” to “What, you’re not American?!” I definitely got some funny looks but always assumed people thought it was strange that someone liked kitschy things :D

WarmStateMomma July 31, 2014 at 3:17 pm

This really makes me wonder what our APs are thinking as they experience their year here. I’d love to know what stories they find interesting enough to share with each other and their loved ones back home. :)

Dorsi July 30, 2014 at 12:35 pm

“Naive” is another word that has a different connotation in its original language. It is not kind to refer to a person as naive in the U.S.

WestMom July 30, 2014 at 9:28 am

Cute story on AP #2.

She went to a large department store with a group of APs from her country (somehow they all learn he word ‘mall’ rather quickly, right?) to buy some ‘American’ clothing popular in their country, but somehow very expensive.

She went to the one of the salesperson and asked for ‘Layveece’. The lady could not understand at all what she was talking about. She asked 2-3-4 times and eventually wrote it on a piece of paper: Levi’s. We had a really good laugh when she shared the story at dinner that night, and she has pronounced it correctly ever since ;)

happyhostmom July 30, 2014 at 11:00 pm

What a fun post. I can’t think of anything specifically, as my au pairs have all had great English skill sand just asked when they didn’t know a word (and we encouraged it). I think it’s fun to learn how other languages use phrases. One phrase we use is “work out” here in the US< while in other countries they "make sport." I've had a good joke going with current AP about this. Also I learned that they make parties and make pictures, instead of having/host parties and taking pictures. Nothing critical but kind of fun differences. I've also figured out that the German word for snake (which my son was saying one day) is actually the reason for a nickname for something here in the US.

NZ HM July 31, 2014 at 6:13 am

I think in NZ we have a pretty good mix of UK and US English (e.g. trousers and pants will be equally associated with longs, whereas underwear is usually referred to as underpants, undies or knickers) but there are of course local peculiarities – I believe the English (not sure about Americans) wouldn’t necessarily wear thongs on their feet (admittedly more an Australian expression – kiwis wear jandals aka flip flops). And the bbq protocol seems to follow the UK / Northern States rules: sauce is optional.

Re AP, we also only got experience with German-English idiosyncrasies and I’ve found out that even for APs with good to very good spoken and receptive language there is still surprises as to why certain expressions and phrases can’t be translated literally while others can.
The German AP often seem to have trouble with the use of fun and funny and do a lot of ‘funny’ things as in “how was your weekend” – “it was funny” (as they stumble over the fact that funny is only tangentially related to fun) and we had one who loved to go out “celebrating” each weekend (with the meaning of going out / having a night on the town / partying).
One set of really confusing words I think are sensible and sensitive (for which the German word is sensibel) (used in “I’ve got sensible feet”). :-)

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 1:50 pm

It’s so hard because we get to know “fun” as a noun and a noun only in school. I only ever watch American TV shows in the original version so I never had a problem with that but I can see why that would be confusing to suddenly use it as an adjective. Plus the translation for funny -lustig- can be used for jokes as well as for weekends.
From what I’ve read from other Germans, “lucky” is also confusing because luck=Glück and happy=GLÜCKlich. So for Germans, happy should actually be lucky. There’s no actual translation for the word lucky in German so “I’m lucky” logically should mean the same as “I’m happy”.

As for the celebrating…let me tell you it’s not any less stupid in German. Celebrating means the exact same thing in German and it just doesn’t make sense. The German celebrating also requires an occasion you could celebrate -major pet peeve of mine when people use it for partying. I find that only a certain kind of people use the German word for it and it’s usually not the kind of people I hang out with. Literally none of my friends uses that word, even the ones who actually enjoy partying quite a lot.

ExAuPair August 21, 2014 at 9:41 am

German Au-Pair

Did you never go “feiern” on the weekends? Might be a regional difference but we did. “Ich war feiern” (partying) in this area would be a totally legit answer to the question “What did you do on the weekend” and didn’t usually involve a birthday or wedding. But then of course here the bus also drives by or along somewhere instead of stopping there (Wo fährt denn der Bus bei/längs? what? how is that even close to German grammar) and they free a door or window (Mach mal die Tür / das Fenster los! heck? German? Grammar! You go buy some!) instead of opening it. Drives me mental! I still haven’t gotten used to that and I have lived here for 15 years now.

WarmStateMomma July 31, 2014 at 2:37 pm

Fun/funny is a problem for Chinese and Vietnamese speakers as well.

LondonMum July 31, 2014 at 5:03 am

One thing I have always wondered about is the US expression “I could care less” which implies you care to some degree and therefore it is possible for you to care less than you do. In UK we say “I couldn’t care less” which implies that we have reached the bottom level of caring and it would not be possible to care to a lesser degree. Yet the two expressions mean the same! It’s always puzzled me why the US say “could” instead of “couldn’t”, can someone explain …?

Taking a Computer Lunch July 31, 2014 at 7:07 am

Slate has a nice defense of the American phrasing – and the first justification is sarcasm: http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/03/18/why_i_could_care_less_is_not_as_irrational_or_ungrammatical_as_you_might.html – but a better article on the lexicon is here – http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/10/24/i_could_care_less/

Americans often say “regardless,” too – even if it’s not supposed to be a word.

WarmStateMomma July 31, 2014 at 7:41 am

It’s supposed to be “couldn’t.” Lots of people here feel the same way you do. :)

Emerald City HM July 31, 2014 at 10:56 am

The people that say “I could care less” are saying it wrong. It’s that simple.

Amelie August 1, 2014 at 9:59 am

I’m not even a native speaker and I HATE when people say “I could care less”.

Taking a Computer Lunch July 31, 2014 at 7:00 am

I have learned over the years, that most of my APs have come with some degree of English competency (we screen for it in telephone/Skype interviews by only asking questions that require a few words or a sentence – almost no yes/no). We determine competency by listening to how frequently the candidate asks us to re-phrase the question. While we do so up front that there are no wrong answers, not understanding the question, even with rephrasing, will end an interview pretty quickly. We have 7 sections of questions, and if the candidate has trouble with the first two, we’re done.

We don’t expect our au pairs to come with a rich vocabulary for food, kitchen utensils, laundry, or household items. We figure they’ll add that pretty quickly with repetition. The more curious the AP, the better she learns vocabulary (and hears nuances).

The sticking point tends to be idiomatic expressions. Even the AP who arrived with almost bilingual fluency didn’t use many idiomatic expressions. So we tend to hear “dry her up” for “dry her off,” “blew me up” for “blew me off,” and “see you later” when she means “see you soon,” etc. I can understand what they mean to say, and correcting them helps them reach that level of fluency that permits less tolerant people to understand what they want to say. I always, always, always think it’s fantastic when an AP feels comfortable enough with English to want to use idiomatic expressions.

Host Mom X July 31, 2014 at 11:34 am

Our current AP, who already had fantastic English when she arrived, has just hit that point (she’s at about her 6 month mark). We were just complementing her the other day on her fabulous use of several idioms and popular slang words she’s been hearing out at the clubs.

NZ HM July 31, 2014 at 6:58 pm

I’m curious: What is the difference between “see you soon” and “see you later” in US English? (here, we use either – or things like “catch you later” – if we’ll see the person (again) in the near future, while “see you (later)” is also used as a general phrase to say “bye” even if there is no intention to meet up again, ever)

Taking a Computer Lunch August 1, 2014 at 7:00 am

I say “see you later” as goodbye, when someone is heading out the door and I expect them back – usually sooner rather than later. I say “see you soon” when someone is heading toward me and calls to tell me they’re on their way or will be late. I had one AP, who went I called to say I was running late, but was on the bus heading home, who always replied, “See you later.” It amused me.

kat August 7, 2014 at 2:11 pm

with my british folks we would use ‘see you soon’ for example if i am coming to visit and we email/text in the last days/hours before my arrival.
‘see you later’ would be used as a good bye when someone is going out and coming back in a few hours.

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Oh, one thing that just occured to me:
Americans say “Good for you” a lot and to all those who have German APs (not sure about other countries): That’s INCREDIBLY rude in German. It basically means you couldn’t care less about what they just said and can even mean you’re mad at them. It’s THE phrase used for blowing someone off. Might want to let your AP know to avoid hurt feelings. Many know that before they come because there’s a an amusing list “you know you are an AP when…” that has “…you use “good for you” in a positive way” but some might not know.
Let me tell you, it’s really hard to be back and constantly use it in a positive way…

Seattle Mom July 31, 2014 at 2:27 pm

That is funny… you may know that it is also used here sarcastically, which is closer to the German use. But people do often say it when they are sincerely congratulating someone. I don’t personally ever say it.. I don’t know why it just doesn’t feel right for me. I’d rather just say “that’s great, congratulations” or whatever.

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Yes, but in English you can tell the difference by the way it’s said…the sincere intonation is very confusing for us since there is no way to say it sincerely in German.

NZ HM July 31, 2014 at 6:50 pm

hmm, interesting! I’ve never heard ‘good for you’ (here, we use ‘good on you’ which is definitely positive, used to say “well done!”) so googled it and most definitions seem to be tending towards the negative and sarcastic.

One thing I noticed with a lot of non-native speakers who have been here a while is an excessive use of idioms and slang phrases. I’m never sure if it is conscious (“yay, I’ve really conquered the foreign language”) or just sneaks in (similar to people emulating accents)…

German Au-Pair July 31, 2014 at 7:31 pm

Correct me if I’m wrong but I have heard it being used in an affectionate way towards children and apparently this has been observed quite frequently or it wouldn’t have made it to said list.
Maybe it’s a definition thing? Clearly “good for you” is not as appreciative as other things you might say, but in German, if you announced something positive you did or that happened to you and someone responded with “good for you” you would A be angry at the other person and/or B assume the other person is angry at you.
But I’m sure people have used it as a positive thing around me many times. Thoughts?

BTW, same goes for nice. It’s hard to tell if your nice dress or nice new couch is being insulted or not in English. We have a saying “nice is the little brother of shitty” so if someone said your dress was nice, he’d hate it but spare your feelings. I English, it is my perception that calling objects nice is actually positive, right?

Taking a Computer Lunch August 1, 2014 at 7:07 am

You’re correct – “Good for you!” is often used positively with very young children – because we tend to keep phrasing simple, yet directive (so the “for you” is necessary). However, by the time they’re teens, it’s used sarcastically.

Nice is used in a variety of ways. As an exclamation it means “Fantastic!” but it can also be used as a dismissive compliment, to spare hurt feelings. More often, it’s used by people who don’t have a lot of adjectives to describe something they like. I remember my first day in Dublin, and a kid said, “That’s brilliant,” which would seem over the top in American English.

But almost every complimentary adjective is used in American English sarcastically – intonation is everything. I can roll my eyes and say, “Wonderful,” and the American listener would intuitively know I was displeased. (It makes me wonder how often I do that with my APs? I know I do it with child #2!)

German Au-Pair August 1, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Well yeah, intonation changes everything and I assume sarcastic intonation is the same in every language. But somehow, saying “That’s a nice dress” sounds much more sincere in English than it would in German.

I guess the good for you issue is due to all APs dealing with children so we hear it a lot more often than one usually would and it makes its way into our speech.

It’s funny though that brilliant would be over the top in English even though you say “I love XY” way more often in English than you do in many other languages. (Of course brilliant would be way over the top in German, too, though.)

Amelie August 1, 2014 at 10:01 am

yes, this is very rude in Portuguese as well.

in Portuguese, saying it means either “I don’t care” or “it’s good for you but not really for me”

The mother of host mom would always say this to me, and it took me a while to notice she was using it in a positive way.

German Au-Pair August 1, 2014 at 12:31 pm

So here we have a case of a grown up saying it to a grown up, too. I believe my friend’s mom said it to me and I have no doubt she didn’t mean it sarcastically? I wonder if this is a regional thing now? Or just personal preference?

LondonMum August 1, 2014 at 11:23 am

In UK “good for you” usually is used if you think someone is being boastful or showing off, in that sense it more or less means “shut up”. I wouldn’t use the phrase in a positive sense as it’s just not something I would say, but it can mean “well done” to a small child but in UK we probably dont over praise as much as in the US. The constant use of “good job” would drive me crazy, sorry … don’t mean to cause offence! Just being “British” I guess!!

DC Metro Mom August 1, 2014 at 3:45 pm

In Southern circles, when you hear “Bless XXX’s heart (sometimes, Bless your heart),” this is not an intention to say prayer for a cardiac organ. It is a gentle way of saying that either (a) someone is not terribly bright or (b) a positive statement is about to be followed by a negative one, which was the intention to begin with.

LondonMum August 2, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Yes, in UK we say “bless him/her” which means they are not very bright!

NZ HM August 4, 2014 at 9:12 pm

Just thought of another phrase easily misinterpreted – not sure if this used in US English; it certainly tells a lot about British English, language and attitude, esp. the famed understatement: “you might want to (do this or that)” which really means “you have to/ are required to do this or that”.

Taking a Computer Lunch August 4, 2014 at 9:28 pm

I’m from the Northeast, we tend to be direct to the point of being blunt. That being said, I stopped saying “You should” when several au pairs misconstrued it to mean, “but are not required,” and now am forthright. “I want you to do…”

I’m sure every language has ways to soften requests that are completely lost in translation.

AlwaysHopeful HM August 4, 2014 at 9:54 pm

I often say “I would appreciate if you…” or “I prefer that you…” or “I do not feel comfortable with ‘x'”. I haven’t run into problems yet, but I do wonder if that phrasing may be a bit too indirect.

Juliana August 20, 2014 at 5:47 pm

I love your blog and I loved this idea of post!!
If everything goes right, I’ll be an aupair and all this words mentioned in this post will help :)))

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