Helping Au Pairs Teach Second-Languages to Kids

by cv harquail on March 12, 2015

Does anyone feel like s/he’s cracked the nut on having an au pair help teach a child a second language?

tumblr_lrwisp42Rx1qh26gbo1_500Many host parents chose au pairs with this goal in mind, knowing these key things:

  • Au Pairs also need to speak English so that they can achieve their language learning goals
  • Few Au Pairs are taught how to teach a language to a child
  • Any parent wanting a child to learn an additional language needs to make sure, first, that the child and the au par can communicate effectively in any  language– and this line of communication must be kept open even as a second language is being used too.
  • Parents wanting a child to speak a language other than English need to find ways in addition to the au pair interaction to support that language learning for the child.

Those caveats in mind… can you help with this mom’s question?

Three wonderful au pairs and two years later (one was a short-term extension au pair), my 2-and-some-years-old son successfully understands French. However, of the few words he speaks, most of them are in English.

Myself, host Dad, and step children speak English exclusively. The Francophile toddler watches French cartoons, hears French songs and plays with other French toddlers occasionally. But obviously he’s exposed to a great deal more in English in his little life.

I  understand that multilingual children are slower to start speaking in general and I’m not trying to rush the process. But I’m wondering, have other host families had success introducing language activities into their au pair’s daily duties? If so, what kind?

Merci beaucoup!   ~CapitolHostMomhenri-screen-shot-copy-1


UKAu Pair March 12, 2015 at 5:39 pm

I taught English to the Italian child that I looked after. Everyone else around him speaks Italian, but his level of English is surprisingly good (he’s a very bright 5 year old).

I think the thing that would help most is to learn with him. Make it fun. Watch cartoons together, learn basic phrases which you can throw into conversation, get the step-children to learn it. Multilingual toddlers do learn slowly and then suddenly come on in leaps and bounds, so I wouldn’t worry too much about how little he speaks, but having non-francophone siblings will make it significantly harder.

When he’s older then you can start introducing more (e.g. what’s ‘cat’ in French? get him to ask for water in French. Make him speak it), but for the moment I don’t think you need to worry too much. Language acquisition is a funny old business.

SKNY March 12, 2015 at 5:53 pm

I can help a little.
It is completely normal for bilingual children to be delayed. If your final goal is fluency, you must keep at it. No matter what. Even if he started speech therapy, you could still maintain bilingualism.
Children will always speak in the mAjority language if they know they will be understood. So it is normal that his words are in English.
I am native Portuguese speaker, my girls understand Portuguese and reply in English. They have just now (3 and 5) started mixing (saying Portuguese words mixed on the English sentences. And it is ok.
Now, for a young child to really take to a language it must be significant for the child. It must be more than the language spoken by a caregiver who changes every year.
Maybe you guys can join a French speaking play group, or friend a family who speaks French. But make the language significant. It will help. Specially when your child is smart and know the Au pair understands English.
Guide the Au pair to follow his lead and add something.
So if she asks where is the bowl, and he replies kitchen in English, he should follow up by repeating what he said in French. But not pretending not to understand. Just (in French): “oh you mean xxxx? Sure! Can you repeat?” And if he doesn’t, ok.
If he was to respond kitchen in French, then she would add one level: “oh IT IS IN THE KITCHEN”. Always building….

meanwhile in canada March 12, 2015 at 8:08 pm

i think the positive association piece is really key. one of the main reasons we were interested in the au pair program was so that our children develop another positive association with german, specifically a relationship with another speaker of the language (i already speak german with them, while hd speaks another language with the children). & it is really amazing how much my son’s german has improved since we started!
recasting, the practice of repeating the child’s utterance in the target language is a really good strategy, as well as developing the habit of having the child ask “what is x in target language?” when you develop the habit from an early age, it feels less weird and stilted to institute later, and it gives them an additional strategy for using the target language. our son didn’t speak in anything resembling sentences until he was well past 2 years old, but now he speaks 3 languages fluently (at age 6). keep at it.
also: i echo skny in saying that the ap should not pretend that she doesn’t understand if the child speaks english, simply use some other tools (like recasting) to encourage a repetition of the content of what they’ve said in the target language.

WarmStateMomma March 12, 2015 at 6:42 pm

I love this topic! Bilingualism is the main reason we hired an au pair. We’ve been hosting au pairs for 24 months now and my oldest is 27 months, so she’s understood Chinese for as long as she could communicate. She is fully bilingual to the extent a child so young can be and we don’t speak any Chinese. Chinese used to be her strongest language, but it’s English now that I’ve been home on maternity leave for 12 weeks (with all of our relatives visiting and immersing her in English). The pediatrician says she speaks like 3-4 yo in English, and she speaks up to 8 words in a string in Chinese. Every kid is different, but here is what worked for our daughter:

1 – Read the book Nurture Shock. Specifically, the chapters on speech and TV. Very young children do NOT learn to speak new languages from watching TV/videos. They need human interaction to pick up language. They also pick up words faster if you touch them during any verbal communication. It can be holding/snuggling, or a simple touch on the arm. Physical contact makes verbal communication seem important/desirable to very young children.

2 – Repeat everything the child says, sometimes in different ways. It just reinforces language all around. My kid says, “Mama, I want da milk please.” I respond with, “You would like some milk? I will pour the milk.”

3 – If the child says something in French, reinforce it every time. For example, if the kid asks for du lait, give it to him even though you are the English speaker. If the kid asks for something in English to the AP, she should ask him to say it French and give him the words to do so. “Veux-tu du lait?” Always emphasize the minority language at the expense of English – your kids will be fluent in English simply by going to decent schools here and having fluent parents. We used to keep a list of the Chinese words my daughter learned so that my husband and I could understand and give her the milk when she asked in Chinese.

4 – Books. Our AP reads our daughter’s favorite books in Chinese. The Octonauts are not published in Chinese, but she tells the stories in Chinese as they turn the pages. Good enough. My kid knows what happens and now understands the general plot in both languages. (We have some books in Chinese, but this is a great way to use the books you already have and that your son already loves.) I also found videos online of classic American books read in Chinese, which my daughter gets to watch when the AP is not on duty.

5 – Teach your AP how to teach your child. I regularly tell our AP why I think something specific she is doing is so useful. “It’s great when you share inside jokes with HK in Chinese because you keep Chinese relevant for her.” I share what I’ve learned from the latest article about language acquisition or bilingualism with her – she feels like a partner in this endeavor. I refer to her as my daughter’s Mandarin teacher from time to time.

6 – Clone your AP. Record her reading your son’s favorite books (or something similar). Play it in the car, while you’re making dinner, or other times that you need to occupy him. He is connected to your AP and it’s totally different to watch/listen to her en francais than a stranger. The kids really pay attention to recordings of people they love.

7 – Play. Give them plenty of time to just play with no other agenda. The only rule is that it must be in French. Provide ideas/supplies/support for activities, crafts, games, whatever it takes to get your son having fun with the AP.

8 – Don’t speak bad French. If you don’t speak the target language really well, don’t do it in front of your son. We used a few of my daughter’s favorite words in Chinese (dog, milk, etc.) and ended up teaching her to use our horribly-wrong pronunciation. If your French is as bad as mine, leave it to the AP to do the actual speaking.

Your son understands French!! That’s fantastic and he will be able to speak it when he is speaking more. (Is there anything more charming than a little kid speaking French?) It sounds to me like the concern is really that he isn’t speaking very much right now, not that he doesn’t understand either language well. (See Nurture Shock.)

FWIW – I don’t think songs are all that helpful. How many songs do you sing along to in an empty car without paying attention to the lyrics?

Also, I think boys pick up language slower than girls. My nephew was almost non-verbal at 2.5, but he speaks as well as any 4yo I’ve met now. He seemed to pick it up overnight. Maybe that’s normal?

We state in our HF letter that we need someone to speak Chinese exclusively to the kids, but that we will speak loads of English with the AP since we don’t speak Chinese. Honestly, they would just teach each other lousy English anyway. The AP would use words like potty and milky-milks, and my daughter would have horrible grammar and pronunciation.

WarmStateMomma March 13, 2015 at 11:17 pm

Something else you can do – give your son another French audience. We told my daughter that her new baby sister doesn’t know English yet so she translates loads of things we say into Chinese for the baby. A teddy bear or other stuffed animal presented by the AP as arriving from France could serve the same purpose. Even if it buys you just a few months of extra practice before he catches on, it’s a win.

I try to separate the cultural activities from language practice. Both are worthy endeavors, but attending cultural events does not necessarily equal language practice. We try to focus our efforts on the strategies that will yield the best return for the least effort. Spending most of the day at an event where my kid speaks only a few words in the target language may not be as efficient as just playing legos in the language.

German Au-Pair March 12, 2015 at 6:52 pm

Maybe have her make videos with French rhymes and songs? A friend of mine has introduced Portugese to her HK and gets him speaking by making cute fun little videos. Every child is different but he seems to enjoy the attention and showing off his skills.

When the cat is away March 13, 2015 at 8:44 am

I think you already got some great suggestions. The first thing which came to my mind were books. Many kids love to watch / read books together with grown-ups.

I was once employed as a babysitter / language teacher. The family didn’t actually need a babysitter, but the parents wanted to exposure their child to its second language. In the working interview, they asked me to be “the fun adult”. They wanted me to be kind of a grandmother who spoils the kid: eating ice cream, doing fun activites etc.

Obviously, this doesn’t work with an au pair, but maybe you could adjust this idea. Maybe you could have once a week a “French morning” where the au pair does fun things with your son, solely in French. It’d be perfect if you had the possibility to add a cultural layer to it. (Otherwise it might be hard for the kid to experience the French component). What do children in your au pair’s homecountry love to do which is not common in the US? Eating some special cakes? Playing certain games? Ask your au pair what is typically played on children birthday parties, in my experiences, there are often huge cultural differences. With other words: create regular special treats with a French layer.

NovaFrenchHostDad March 13, 2015 at 9:27 am

Don’t worry about it:
– I’ve exclusively spoken French to my twin 2 year olds since they were born.
– Our au pairs are from France and exclusively speak French to them.
– The kids see their French speaking family over skype almost every week-end
– They are exposed to other French speaking families in the area

Yet, they almost only speak English even though they perfectly understand French. They use very few select French words and I believe what happens is they simply use the word they learned first. For the longest time they called airplanes a “bye-bye” because as infants whenever we saw a plane we waved at them and said “bye bye” :-)

Expose them to a specific French word for an item long enough and they’ll start using it. Try calling a “diaper” a “couche” for instance.

Bottom line: they’ll start talking in French once they understand the difference. Oh, and when they realize they’ll have a secret language no one else understands, you’ll wish they switch to English!

Mimi March 13, 2015 at 10:46 am

We are not big on having our AP teach the children another language, but I ask our APs to bring a few children’s books with them to familiarize them with hearing another language and we encourage them to read to the boys as a way of putting language skills to practical use.

With all our German speaking APs, we have the AP label items and the boys use the words mixed with English in normal conversation. Our Italian AP taught them songs and used cooking to share vocabulary with the boys, and our most recent AP spoke Spanish with them. Since they all have it in school, they would have mini conversations with her about everyday activities. They would speak Spanish and she would respond in English.

Mixing things in with everyday activities and recasting (both for the kids and the AP) seems to be the best way for us. It helps that HD and I both speak the languages, too, so we can reinforce what they’re learning. Since we will be looking for a new AP back in our Austrian/German comfort zone, I will be keeping up with the Spanish independently.

WestMom March 13, 2015 at 11:55 am

We are now 14yrs into our bilingual family project, and I have learned many things along the way. Full disclosure, I am a native French speaker with English speaking husband. My family is French speaking therefore having my children speak French was a non-negotiable situation for us. Here are a few thoughts…

Be realistic with your goal. How proficient do you want your children to be in another language? Developing an understanding and appreciation is a noble goal in itself and might be achieved with the help of a childcare worker. If your goal is fluency though, I believe that part-time exposure with a childcare worker is not enough, and will require sustained support by the parents and extra-curricular activities. Bilingualism doesn’t ‘just happen’. It is a big commitment.

To that point, we did have a Spanish-speaking nanny for 4 years before we started hosting APs. She spoke exclusively in Spanish with the children, and that was their only exposure to the language. All this effort has evaporated since she left, because there was not follow up on our part.

Also know that each child develops differently, and has different affinity for language. Birth order also makes a huge difference. My first born (now 13), is fluent (though not native level) and instinctively speaks with me in French at all times. She had the most practice out of our 3 kids, being mostly alone with me until she was 3, therefore having plenty of time (and no choice) to develop her French. Her sister (10) is the kind of kid that talks all the time and is very confident. She spoke very early and her French is now flawless (she sounds native). She does not always speak with me in French though. Her English is her go-to language and I have to remind her to speak to me in French. My youngest (also 10, but still my baby), rarely speaks French unless prompted. Note that she also has a learning disability, and even English is hard for her. The twins had each other to speak with, and English became the default language very early, compared to my oldest. Big difference.

Since fluency was our goal, here are some of the steps we took to get there:
I speak exclusively in French with the children, and I ask that they respond in French and I ask that our APs do the same (frankly the kids just assume that the AP doesn’t understand English so they consistently speak with AP in French).

When the kids were 7 and 4, we hosted our first AP from France. We have had 5 French APs total. One of the requirements is for AP to speak French at all times with the kids. Some candidates do turn us down, and I can fully appreciate that learning English might be very important for them. One possible challenge is making sure AP recognizes that her English development will be dependent on how much she decides to immerse her in the American culture and whether or not she expands her friendships outside her own community. This has been a challenge for two of our APs who really didn’t make much progress during their stay (although they did not seem to mind so much. I think it was mostly me who felt bad that they were returning to France without the benefit of being fully bilingual…).

We will never again get a non-native French speaker with the hopes that she will speak French with the kids. We had a lovely Swiss AP who spoke superbly in French. She was so gifted with languages that she often did not realize which language she was speaking in. The kids quickly realized that they could get away with speaking English to her, and she would unknowingly encourage that behavior.

We sent our kids to a bilingual school from preschool through 5th grade. It was a huge commitment, but I believe that to achieve fluency, you need actual instruction in addition to exposure.

We have traveled to France, and go to Quebec often. We seek experiences where the children will have to put their French in practice in the real world without a safety net. Summer camp in French (not immersion- but with real French-speaking people) for example, is a huge booster.

We buy books and magazines in French. Bayard is a great source to order from and their magazines are so well done and interesting. My kids are so excited when the French mags come in the mail. We subscribed to French TV for a while, but as a PP mentioned, I don’t put much value on that.

Our kids were older when we started hosting, so in terms of activities, AP would be first and foremost helping with French homework. Aside from that, making recipes together is a really great way to learn so many things- from math to learning new vocabulary, and of course… learning how to cook. Board games are great too. One AP came with a suitcase FULL of French board games and they were constantly playing together. Reading bedtime stories together is also great. With 3 kids, we would basically all take turns with one child (AP, DH and I), so the lucky child with AP would get a bit more French before bedtime.

This is a truly a wonderful project and I wish you the best of luck. Set realistic expectations, be consistent with your approach and you will see you child slowly improve and build confidence in the other language. You can expect a lot of progress around age 3. Bon courage!

Mimi March 13, 2015 at 11:59 am

+++ with the consistency

SKNY March 13, 2015 at 1:45 pm

West mom,
I know your kids are older, but did you run into any au pair who resisted speaking French even though she agreed to?
My situation is a little different. I am a native Portuguese speaker (husband is American). When my oldest “homemade” child was 3 weeks old, my husband traveled to Ukraine to adopt a 13yo girl. She spoke 2 languages and I let specialists bully me into only speaking English in the house with ALL (as would be beneficial for my new daughter).
I only realized the mistake when I went home and my (at the time 2yo) could not understand a word my parents spoke to her (duh, should have imagined). So I took a Brazilian au pair (at that point my homemade babies were 2.5 and 6mo).
My first au pair spoke no English almost, and “broke the kids”. They learned a lot of every day Portuguese with her (I started speaking Portuguese with them when my teen was not in the house). However, I noticed that number 2 although a great caregiver, had a hard time only speaking in Portuguese. If they responded to her in English, she would just switch to English and keep going in English. I had to remind her all the time that she should keep at Portuguese (even if they were responding to her in English). Their Portuguese did not grow at all during her stay.
Au pair one returned temporarily afterwards to assist me when I was about to have a third baby and again, it is amazing how much they gained. We spend a month home after that and they got to the point where they understood everything one said in Portuguese, but only replied in English (even when prompted). Because of their low ages (2 and 4, I let it, just copying in back to Portuguese).
However, my last 2 (short/rematch) au pairs were not able to keep Portuguese with them. It seemed that was an automatic thing for them. As soon as the kids replied in English (correctly, meaning that they fully understood them), the au pairs kind of automatically switched to English, anxious that the kids did not understand them. True that both did not work in all levels (this was really just one…) but still… I wonder if it is due to age, low level of proficiency with kids…

WarmStateMomma March 13, 2015 at 2:55 pm

SKNY – My APs were 25 and 26 upon arrival. Every age has its benefits and drawbacks, but perhaps older APs are better able to accept the responsibility of redirecting the conversation to the target language.

WestMom March 13, 2015 at 3:35 pm

When I approach candidates, I tell them that there are 3 core expectations (aside from being 21+):

1) Speak French with the kids at all times and help with homework
2) Enjoy food and cooking
3) Be a strong driver

I think the fact that I put it front and center makes our expectations very clear. Most of our APs have come with limited English skills and were happy to have French as an anchor to help them transition into their new life in the USA. We have had 2 APs who were very comfortable in English. Both continued to make great progress in English too. I haven’t had the problem you describe, although a friend of mine did. Her AP came to the realization 6m in the program that she needed more exposure to English. Again, I think that if this is your expectations, you should be very clear upfront during the courting process. Some candidates are likely to pass on your family, but that’s the price we pay for that request.

AuPairFrance March 14, 2015 at 5:10 pm

I think that the point about having limited English skills (or in my case French skills) at the beginning does not only make it more likely that the AP will be happy to speak to the kids in her own language, but also makes it easier for the kids to remember to speak in the second language. When I first got here I genuinely wouldn’t have understood them if they had spoken French to me, so it didn’t feel to them like they were wasting effort by translating everything into English, it was the quickest way for them to communicate (and get what they wanted). Whilst now I do understand more or less understand French, it has become habit (at least for the older two) to only speak English to me and so even if they are speaking French to each other, if they want to talk to me they switch into english.
Interestingly the youngest is the only one who I have to speak French to (to help with homework in French) and consequently is the only one who ever speaks in French to me during the rest of the day, although I always speak in English to him except whilst doing homework (and about 3/4 of the time he’ll reply in English)

(I’d also disagree that the age of an AP affects whether they will redirect a conversation into their own language, though it may depend on fluency in English and perhaps maturity, but I was only only just old enough to be an AP when I started and always speak to the French children in English)

Abba March 13, 2015 at 1:13 pm

I wish we had the local resources that WestMom describes–a bilingual school would be a dream. My kids have always had Spanish-speaking caregivers (they are twins, not quite 5). Until about age 2/12, they spoke more Spanish than English. Starting around age 3, with the arrival of AP#2, their speaking evaporated although they still understand everything when spoken to in Spanish. I chalk this partly up to age and them asserting themselves (and wanting to do what’s easiest and most comfortable), and partly due to AP style. AP#1, with whom we rematched after four months for unrelated reasons, was in retrospect great as a language teacher and more proactive about teaching and reinforcing language. AP#2 (with whom we’ve extended) is wonderful with the kids in other ways but not great at reinforcing language (she speaks with them in Spanish but does not encourage them to respond in Spanish or “re-cast” English responses). Since this is all we’ve got (I’m a non-native speaker myself and my husband is no help here), our primary source of language exposure is our AP. This in and of itself is our main reason for sticking with the program for now, though we love the convenience too. I have to believe that somewhere down the road, it will pay off if we stick with it. Reading this original post, I realized we never gave either AP any real instruction on how to teach (we wouldn’t have known how). Rather, we just asked them both to speak exclusively in Spanish to the kids. Looking back, I think some of the approaches outlined above would have helped us and will try them with our next AP.

CoffeeCapitolHM March 13, 2015 at 11:42 pm

I would love some advice in this arena too! Our situation: My husband is English prominent, but Italian speaking. His family speak a good mix of Italian/English. I speak no Italian. We got an Italian au pair, in the hopes that the kids (2 and 1) would pick up more Italian, and be bilingual. After four months, we have to rematch. After talking with the agency and looking at the limited rematch pool, we came to the conclusion that although one of our driving forces behind joining the program was language – ultimately good childcare is more important and we now have someone coming from Brazil – who speaks Portuguese! So, do we have her expose the kids who are already English dominant, but understand Italian – to Portuguese? Or will this muddy Italian for them? My initial thought was that exposure to all language is beneficial, and I wouldn’t mind if they picked up some Portuguese. They will still be exposed to Italian through family. I just don’t want to make learning Italian MORE difficult for them. Any thoughts?!

WestMom March 14, 2015 at 9:32 am

Hi CoffeeMom,
I feel for you. The pool of Italian APs is relatively limited, so it might be challenging to find a good girl year to year. You may want to cast a wider net- Register with multiple agencies, or use a third-party site like GreatAuPair or AuPair-World to help in your search.

We are in the same boat this year. AP6 was not a good match and when we went into the rematch pool, there were no French APs available. We ended up with a great Brazilian AP we love dearly, but she is not teaching the kids any Portuguese. Personally, I feel that if we are not planning to maintain the language in the future, it’s probably not really worth spending that much effort on exposure. As I mentioned in my original post, we had a Spanish speaking nanny for 4 years and because we were unable maintain the language after she left, the return on that investment ended up being very low. In our case, I think it might have actually delayed my youngest’s acquisition of both French AND English. Some kids do very well with exposure to different languages, but some don’t do as well, especially if they have a speech-related disorder.

WarmStateMomma March 14, 2015 at 10:33 am

I’m with WestMom. It’s probably not worth the effort if you don’t plan to maintain it. I would focus my efforts on Italian in your shoes unless either your kids are incredibly talented at picking up new languages (I’ve met two people with this gift but think it would be hrs to detect in kids so young) or you are worried the AP’s English isn’t good enough for your children to learn from since they are still learning English at 2 and 1.

AuPair Paris March 14, 2015 at 11:40 am

I would really appreciate some advice about this. I’m supposed to be teaching English to the kids, but they are very resistant to learning, and have tantrums (the screaming and throwing themselves on the floor kind) when I speak to them in English – let alone trying to get them to respond. To some extent I’ve counteracted this by only allowing the most *fun* activities in English – but I’m required to speak to them in English at all times, and I simply don’t. The other responsibilities I have don’t get achieved if I try to – they think nothing of throwing themselves on the floor and screaming til their blue in the face for half an hour – when we’ve got ten minutes to get to a Dr’s appointment, or piano lesson for example. If I switch to French – no problem, ready to go.

So I *do* have “fun-activity” time set up in English, and kind of rewards for speaking in English and such. But the screaming tantrums and resentment remains. The kids have had the English-is-work attitude since long before I came. So how to deal with that? I feel incompetent – like I’m not doing my job. (Well, I’m not! My job is to speak with the kids in English at all times, and I just can’t do that!)

I have spoken to the host-parents, but responses are always along the lines of “well, this is really important, so just keep trying”, rather than actual techniques… I am in touch with past-au pairs too, and know that they had the same difficulties and all ended up speaking mostly in French. (So the kids have proof that this behaviour works…) But I don’t know how to *not* give into it! It’s really not up to me to decide that “right. Piano/the doctor/dance/errands/tooth-brushing doesn’t matter today, because you won’t do it unless I switch to French”… :\

AuPair Paris March 14, 2015 at 11:43 am


Mimi March 14, 2015 at 12:12 pm

I don’t have much experience with French children and some techniques are age dependent, but if you have talked to the parents, do you feel they understand how bad the tantrums are? Maybe showing a video to them will give them an idea how bad it is and allow them to address this with their children, also. Some children might also respond with improvement after seeing a video of their misbehavior.

As you said, the children know that the misbehavior works. What I have done in the face of tantrums is end fun activities early to make time for the tantrums, designated a tantrum spot and then let it run it’s course while nonchalantly observing. You can’t give in or respond in a way they want you to. (Rarely an easy task!). It’s rare that a child can maintain a full on tantrum for longer than an adult can wait it out if you plan for it.

Other tactics you can use is to do a countdown to switching activities to ease the transitions, timing their tantrum and letting them know it’s time off the fun activities, making the individual activities into a game or even using competition regarding compliance. You have to know if divide and conquer vs collective cooperation/peer pressure (or a mix of the two) will work best with the HK and use it to your advantage.

old au pair mom March 17, 2015 at 9:20 pm

Mimi, I love that you end fun activities early to make time for tantrums. What a wise idea. Prior to the tantrum even starting you could race the child to the designated space and say “have at it” I will be over here when you are done.” Not having an audience does make a tantrum less successful.

WestMom March 14, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Dear AP in Paris,
You are really caught in an unfair situation. Sounds to me like you are the only one responsible for English acquisition, and because it IS hard work to learn a new language, the kids are rebelling against it and you are the one left with an even harder job. I would suggest two things:

1- Get the parents involved in the effort. Are they trying to speak in English with the children too? Are they showing by example that English is important to them? I would encourage the family to share ‘English moments’. For example, petit dejeuner is always in English (Or a few dinners per week, or every Wednesday for example). Have a weekly English family game night (20 questions is a lot much fun in another language, or even I spy). Watch a family movie in English every Friday. What I am suggesting is that if the kids see the parents also making an effort, it might encourage them to learn and practice.

2- Allow the kids a break. Give them a free pass 2-3 times per day where they can revert and ask you to speak in French. You can make it fun, maybe with some ‘French tickets’ they can use when they get frustrated. Set a time limit for each ticket. Maybe also offer them the ability to trade the tickets in for a treat if they don’t use all their tickets for the week. Most kids will make extra effort for some candy or chocolate :)
Good luck!

AuPair Paris March 14, 2015 at 2:03 pm

Thanks so much for these ideas guys! The host-parents *do* speak English with the kids – the difference being that the kids start whining and shouting, and they sort of laugh and stop, switching to French, so it never escalates into full tantrum level. I don’t have the right to do that though! With the tantrums I’m mostly talking about the youngest. The two older ones snap, shout, sulk and go silent, which is not much more pleasant, but slightly easier to work around.

I try not to feel resentful that I’m the only one who has to persevere, on an issue that the parents regularly give in on. After all, it’s actually my job, and it’s what I’ve been hired for. The parents work really hard at their actual jobs, and don’t want to be butting heads with their kids as soon as they get home. I’m a bit at my wits’ end though. Sometimes the younger one will be screaming and crying, throwing things as I try to comfort her, totally red in the face, and I just feel like the worst au pair that ever existed.

On the other hand, when I speak in French, they love me, they’re all about the cuddles, and they’re shockingly obedient and placid (which is one of the reasons that the language-tantrums hit so hard – it’s very out of character for all of them). Maybe the kids are just better at using consistent negative reinforcement than I am!

UKAu Pair March 14, 2015 at 3:24 pm

I’m wondering why you’re trying to comfort the youngest?

With me (and I appreciate that this doesn’t work for everyone), the quickest way to get me to ignore you is to throw a tantrum! My Italian boy was sometimes very resistant to learning/going to school, to a similar extent to yours (kicking, screaming, lying on the floor and refusing to move). His parents and grandparents cajoled him with chocolate, gave into his whims, and basically allowed this 4 year old to dictate their lives. Worked for them- and is normal for their culture- but I wasn’t going to let him get away with it.

So- he started having a tantrum, I said “if you can’t behave properly then I’m not going to spend time with you” and then completely ignored him until he stopped. He learnt very, very quickly that starting to scream (or pretending to cry, which he did a lot) would mean that he’d have less time playing with me.

I’m not going to waste my time comforting someone who has learnt that throwing a hissy fit is how to get their own way. With one of my French boys (9) he threw a tantrum because he wanted to make cakes and I said he had to do his homework first. I told him that the more time he wasted the less time he’d have to make cakes with me, because he would still have to do his homework. He stopped and never tried it again.

The older two are harder (I’ve never really come across this as a problem) so I don’t know what to suggest, and I completely sympathise with you. You have a difficult job, but you do have to speak French with them and you do have to be firm. It might be worth talking to the parents and asking if, for example, they’re throwing a tantrum, you can leave them to it even if it means missing a dance class (obviously something like a doctor’s appointment is different). If you don’t have to get them out of the door by a certain time it makes it much easier for you.

[I also want to add that if the children are very young (toddlers) or special needs, then you need to be very careful when they’re having a tantrum and you’re ostensibly ‘ignoring’ them, because they could easily injure themselves. So even if you refuse to interact with them while they do it, make sure you’re in the room. Also, when they calm down and are ready to do whatever it is you need (in French), make sure to follow it up with positive reinforcement e.g. ‘are you ready now?’ plus a hug and immediately engage with them. It reinforces the idea that tantrums get you nothing while speaking French means attention and fun.]

[Also, be aware of why they’re having a tantrum. If it’s pure bad behaviour (like it sounds like it is here) then you want to stop the attention-seeking. If it’s for a legitimate reason then definitely comfort them. Basically be very aware of what they’re doing and why, and also that this might not be suitable for all children. I have no idea how American children are brought up, for example, and whether this would be acceptable childcare of if it would damage their self esteem.]

AuPair Paris March 14, 2015 at 4:24 pm

I don’t always comfort her – often I ignore her, but there are times when she gets herself so wound up and upset that she’s crossed the line over “being naughty to get my own way” to truly disconsolate. I witnessed her parents ignoring it once, but she didn’t self-soothe for over an hour, and even then, she was still sobbing occasionally into the early hours of the morning. Of course I ignore her when I can tell she’s just being naughty. Sometimes though, even when the tantrum hasn’t started for a legitimate reason, she gets lost in her own head… I don’t know, I realise that comforting isn’t necessarily the response, but ignoring her isn’t either, I don’t think…

WarmStateMomma March 14, 2015 at 7:31 pm

You’re in a tough position. I would put this one on the host parents to figure out. If you were my AP, I’d tell you to let them have their tantrums and miss dance practice or whatever.

AlwaysHopeful HM March 14, 2015 at 10:39 pm

These are great suggestions. For number 2, you could even add “earned” tickets for compliant behavior when addressed in English. You could require that the kids all earn tickets together– giving them an incentive to encourage each other to remain pleasant. I would still keep the “free” tickets, so there is always a baseline of a little escape. Also, I would start by doling them out liberally, then gradually cut back as it becomes less necessay. Of course, the HP would need to agree to this. I would explain that, while you will be speaking less English to the kids, they will begin having more pleasant associations with it and may become more receptive to it overall. Good luck!

AlwaysHopeful HM March 14, 2015 at 10:41 pm

Hm. I intended my post to follow West Mom’s from 12:13 today!

Mimi March 14, 2015 at 4:28 pm

Comforting and ignoring aren’t always the best but you can also try redirecting. Distracted from her issue and calm enough to focus on something else may help.

NJ Mama March 15, 2015 at 11:37 am

I agree with Mimi. Figuring out when to redirect can be extremely difficult. And if the child really has a hard time calming down she may need help in this department.

You don’t say how old the children are. But if you’ve tried ignoring and it’s not working, you may want to ask the child why they get so worked up and upset to the point where they can’t calm down. My oldest was like this and I have to tell you for years I would ignore the tantrums and it just wasn’t working. There were times when she would just get so worked up and she just couldn’t calm herself down, ignoring them never taught her how to either and it was just exhausting for everyone. It’s horrible when a child can’t figure out how to soothe themselves. It was only after I started to really talk to her — always long after the fact (even the next day). You can ask why did you get so upset? Is it that I’m speaking to you in a language you don’t want to use? Or is there something else going on? It may be the language plus something else, and if that’s the case it will give you something to work with. Ask her what you can do next time to help prevent her from having a tantrum. She may also be able to tell you. Maybe she just needs a break and she needs to go to her room for a bit. Maybe a special blanket or stuffed animal will help her calm down.

OK, if it’s about the language, you can tell her that she knows her parents hired you to do this. So you have to do it. Is there anything you can do next time to prevent things from getting out of control? if it’s 100% the language, then you bring the parents into the conversation. Sit down with the child and the parents and say, “The child is getting so frustrated speaking English that she has these terrible tantrums to the point where we’re missing dance classes. The tantrums go on for more than an hour. I am ignoring them but the situation is not getting any better. I think she is having a hard time consoling herself. What can we do together to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” Maybe you 10 minutes a day where you all speak French no matter what to give the child a break. Or maybe then the parents will realize that they need to do more. This is obviously something you can’t do alone. And if ignoring the problem isn’t helping it to go away, then a different approach may be needed.

Good luck! This can be really frustrating and hard for everyone

Spaniard AP in Germany March 14, 2015 at 10:03 pm

First of all, sorry for my bad english – I’m still learning.
I was an au pair a couple years ago, in Germany. I didn’t have any idea about German and the family expect I speak spanish with the girls, aged 2, 5 and 11. They were living in South america 4 years, then the kids speak (bad) spanish. Just the big girl could speak correctly. My work was make the language get better and take care of the 2 and 5 yo girls in the morning.

What I did? Simple things, that’s the most important. No force the language.

First, I spoken only in spanish EVERY SINGLE TIME with the kids, no matter the language they spoken to me.

Second, repeat, repeat and repeat. If the kid say something in his language, repeat it in the “correct” language. If the kid said to me “I want a cookie”, I repeat in spanish “¿You want a cookie?”. When the kid said just “yes”, I repeated other time in spanish “You are sure you want a cookie?”. The kid probably said just “yes” another time. I finally say in spanish “Ok, you want a cookie”.
3 times. Really, repeat all three times. When the kid say it in the “correct language”, you don’t repeat nothing, even if he say it wrong. Finally the kid are bored that you repeat and speak to you in the correct language.

Third, take care of the language’s differences. Spanish have a lot of differences depending the place. Spanish of south america and spanish of Spain is very very different. Example: In Spain, we use “dinero” = money, in South america, they use “plata”, and in Spain, “plata” = silver. Other examples more bizarre for the kids, is “coger”. In Spain means take something, in South america, is F*ck. You can imagine the horror face of my big girl when I asked her if she can “coger” the doll.
For older kids (+9) is good for them to listen different accents -but sometimes, like in my exemple, maybe is confusing- but for the young ones you can really have a problem.

Fourth, link the language with good experiences or privileges they usually don’t have (but with moderation). For example: the kid want a little candy, you can tell the kid if he asked you in Spanish, you give two. He can see 5 minuts more of TV if he asked in Spanish. He can choose the place to go if they say it in spanish (park, library, ice-cream shop).

Last, make games with the language, use the imagination. With my little girls, we had a stars necklace and the person wearing it just can speak in Spanish. This worked very good, because we laugh so much when someone was wrong. I invented a “history” and I told the kids we must to teach spanish to the family dog, because the other dogs in the park only speak spanish and our dog just speak german, and he couldn’t make friends.

Is very important the au pair feel comfortable with the fact to speak in his language, and if I can make a suggestion, is more probable it happens with a poor english speaker for many reasons, the most significant is because is more easy for her communicate with kids…. and well, the kids can see the au pair really doesn’t understand them if they speak english and speak the other language by necessity.

And the fact that the au pair don’t learn english if she speak her language in home is ridiculous. I was one year in Germany, I didn’t have any idea of german when I arrived (I just could said Hello), I didn’t speak German in home (but the family spoken german with each other, and the father spoken to me in a mix of german and spanish the first month, then just german). I finished my year with the same German level that I have in english. No too bad, really?

I hope it helps!

Au Pair in France March 15, 2015 at 2:07 pm

On a related note, does anyone have any advice on getting children to read in their second language? I am supposed to help with the 8yr old’s English reading every day during lunch break, but it is a challenge to get him to read once or twice a week – he either refuses or runs away from me. He needs to practice because they all go to school in England for a month at the end of the year, and at the moment he won’t be able to understand his friends’ lessons. He does enjoy reading, and is always happy to read a story in French, but because he can’t read as well in English, he is reading much simpler stories, and so isn’t interested in them as they are generally aimed at younger readers.Any techniques and/or books anyone would recommend would be great!

CaliHM March 15, 2015 at 2:23 pm

I think at this young age it’s just important to provide the spoken language and supplement with songs (we sing and use YouTube), books and here and there a cartoon.
At two many monolingual kids don’t speak that well. the fact that the AP is the only person to speak French makes it more complicated as well, because it’s the community language the kids learn fastest and best.

we are raising our children trilingual, and it has been as much of a joyous experience as it was frustrating. We try to stick to OPOL (one parent one language), and the community language is English. We have APs to supplement one of our languages at home.
My daughter is almost 5 and her preferred language is English, and to my horror she has an American accent when speaking German…but none when spending Italian. Her Italian is also much better, because she has cousins in Italy to play with every year we visit; no kids in Germany. It’s easier to see peers speaking the language, so maybe joining a French play group might be good.
Both kids understand everything in all languages, and my daughter was fast to keep them apart, and use them correctly with us (she never addresses me in italian although she knows I speak it). My son is 2.5 and just uses whatever word pops into his mind—it’s not uncommon for him to build a sentence that includes all languages, which is really funny, but normal.

So, don’t worry, and just do what you can. At this age, understanding is the most important.
I do tell my daughter to speak to me in German though, if she uses English. I help her out if she can’t express herself.

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