Not Listening? Not Understanding? Not working out… help!

by cv harquail on June 27, 2009

This mom has an interesting twist on a common challenge: the language barrier. In this case, her AP speaks clearly…she just doesn’t seem to understand…or listen.. or care. it’s not clear. Can you offer her any advice?

200906261742.jpg Our new au pair, from Brazil, arrived two weeks ago after our Swedish au pair decided our family "wasn’t the right fit" for her. We have two boys, aged 2 and almost 4. Our new au pair was a breath of fresh air, really – positive, a lovely smile, very sweet, great with our boys even when they’re challenging. We have our 2-week orientation tonight and it has forced my husband and I to acknowledge our concerns about her English.

She is one of those rare people whose expressive language (what she can say) is far better than her receptive language (what she understands). I have a very difficult time knowing if she has understood anything I have said to her.

Usually, I get a blank look that leads me to believe she does not understand. I am now beginning to see, after a week of training, that many of the instructions I gave to her are getting confused. I have also gone to the point of writing out on paper a daily schedule and all of the types of foods and meals we prepare for the boys throughout the day (to the point of – butter and cut up into squares). She didn’t seem to retain much about the food prep training we had done. This is a different experience from our first au pair, from Panama, who was shy to talk, but understood most of what I said to her and understood what to do, especially around food, the first time I showed her.

She is also not able to understand my children. So, when my 4-year-old politely asks for something more for breakfast (more blackberries, please), she doesn’t hear him or listen or understand. We’re not sure which. In fact, we are noticing that she does not seem to listen when we are talking to her and we have to say her name first to get her attention. This makes me think that most of what she hears us say is jibberish to her, so she is tuning out!

We are also trying to look her in the eye when we talk to her, demonstrate instructions versus telling her, etc. It is becoming clear to us that we need to ask her to acknowledge whether she has understood something and repeat it back to us – very time consuming, to be sure, but I think necessary at this point. And, that we need more training. In 90 degree heat yesterday, she didn’t put the boys’ hats on or use sunscreen as I have instructed her several times. I only know this because my husband happened to be home sick yesterday. Otherwise, we would never know! I think overall she is well-intentioned, but we don’t know if we are dealing with a language issue or a competence issue. I suppose time will tell??

200906261738.jpg She has not yet enrolled in English classes because she just missed the cut off for summer classes. However, my husband and I feel that she needs to get involved in some English instruction ASAP for this to work out. And, she spends the majority of her time with another Brazilian au pair speaking Portuguese, so she is not immersing herself in the language to be sure.

We are also noticing that our boys are starving when we come home, such that we are feeding them a second dinner when we get home at 6:30-7pm and an after dinner snack. They can’t seem to get enough, which worries me about what they are eating at home. She has in fact admitted that they are eating a good lunch, but not eating their dinners.

So, how much time does it take for the language to "take off"? What can we do to facilitate communication with very limited language skills? How can I help my children get her to listen to them and understand them? Any thoughts, tips, or strategies would be appreciated!

Thanks,   AnonMom in California

Not Listening (little girl) by Jamesotron on Flickr

Not Listening (big girl) by Kitbex on Flickr


Emma June 27, 2009 at 8:54 pm

I, too, am the kind of person who can verbalize a language before I can comprehend it. I found this out in Spanish class during high school, when I could write essays and form sentances but never had any idea what the teacher was asking me. Writing down all instructions with details right now and trying to use as much body language as possible will help the immediate problem (some,) but she is going to need to start listening to the language more. Go to your local library and pick up some ESL CDs for her to listen to, they shouldn’t be hard to find, and ask her to listen to them in her spare time. They should help at least a bit until you can get her enrolled into an English class.

Jenny June 27, 2009 at 10:07 pm

I had this problem too, at first it was hard for me to understand host family, and *especially* kids, when they were talking in their normal speed of speech, how many wpm you use makes a huge difference. Try to slow down a little bit while talking to her, I know it’s annoying but word-per-word-slooooowly helps, that’s how it’s in Portuguese, I’m Brazilian too, so I know this much is true, it’s a shock when we get here and people are saying it all together, because that’s how it sounds. =) Portuguese is pretty clear, practically all the letters in a word are pronounced, English is the complete opposite. While listening still doesn’t work, write things down, I’ve never had to get to this point, however I think it works out well. Reading is easier, for me at least.
Also, have her watch TV, those favorite teens’ tv shows, and there are lots of them, she would fall for one, if not already, with English subtitles, it’s fun and it HELPS, when you associate the written language to the sound of it you catch a lot more of what’s been said. That’s my 2 cents… good luck! :P

Anna June 27, 2009 at 10:36 pm

In a case of poor English skills, those girls who are motivated and care about the job being done right, catch up quickly. They ask you to repeat, they ask you to write things down, they show they care despite the temporary language impairment. This was the case of our first Brazilian au pair. She arrived with poor English, but it never interfered with the great job she’s done, and she had improved fast. She sought out and took English classes for nominal pay at a local church while waiting for her semester at the community college to start.

But sometimes (as in the case with our second au pair), poor English skill are combined with a kind of personality that makes improvement too hard. Our second Brazilian au pair nodded to all my instructions, she reassured me that she understood after I directly asked her if she understood what I was telling her, but in the end it turned out that she didn’t understand at all. I think she had a chip on her shoulder about being stupid or something (and now I do think she had a mild learning disability), and couldn’t positively and productively use our communication as an opportunity to learn English. After three months of this, and many conversations, I realized that her behavior was not changing, and that by doing this she has endangered our kids several times. I gave her three months, I really have tried everything I could think of! I asked her to call me anytime she had smallest questions, to ask, I was very patient… She never once called me at when she was on duty, even when my child suddenly ran a high fever… We had to part, rematched after three months, despite her sweet personality.

Hula Gal June 27, 2009 at 10:36 pm

I had similar concerns with my au pair initially – did she just not understand me or is she willfully not following my instructions? I started following up my verbal conversations with her with a detailed email. At the end of the email I would ask her to respond to me confirming that she understood everything in the email and if she did not then she should ask me to explain further. I would let her know in the verbal conversation that I was going to follow up by email so she knew to expect it. This has helped tremendously for us because she can take the time to read the email and translate where necessary. And I can hold her accountable because it was in writing and she confirmed that she did understand. She has said that she appreciates these emails and they help to clarify instructions. Maybe this approach may help for some of your issues?

Nicole June 27, 2009 at 10:40 pm

We had an AP like this, who had a very hard time understanding English, especially when the kids spoke to her. She also often seemed to just tune us out like white noise and spend all her free time with people who speak her native language (I think this was the biggest problem, as we have since had an AP with similar English skills who does so much better because she is always trying). We got by with a lot of slow talking, miming, and writing everything down. What terrified me was when I realized that she thought 911 was 991 and this was 2 months in! I was so glad she had never needed to call, but I realized at that point that I had assumed she understood the training at the school. Big mistake! It did get better, but it was an exhausting 3-4 months. Good luck.

Franzi June 28, 2009 at 7:08 am

do you think she is working well with your kids? then give it more time so that she can adapt to the language and open up to the experience of living in an English speaking environment.

if you are not willing to or just can’t put up the effort, then rematch sooner than later because your kids are bonding with her already.

try to enroll her in free English classes, make her speak English eg go to a coffee shop with her and have her order, take her to the grocery store and have her ask a clerk for something etc., in a nice way of course, don’t force her.

my English was ok when i arrived as AP but understanding the kids? oh no! everyone was talking so fast, using words i didn’t know…it takes time to adapt. unfortunately many have this “ok, i didn’t understand a word but a reply is expected so how about i nod”-thing. actually i know only very few people who can refrain from nodding ;-)

again, if you can, give her time to warm up to the language, but for your family peace, set a deadline when you want to reassess the language abilities.

Jeana June 28, 2009 at 7:26 am

You’re doing so many things already, to help your aupair. I think you’ve received some very good suggestions. I’m concerned that in addition to language, your aupair is not showing common sense. A motivated aupair, who cares about learning the routines of your family, should be able to work independently, with the support you’ve provided.

I have a very detailed family book that provides procedures that our aupairs can refer to. I also have a daily sheet, that organizes what takes place throughout the day, that has helped our aupairs in the beginning, until they are confident in how we get through the day. It is like a “cheat-sheet” of what is happening that day, what chores my daughters have, reminders of what happens before breakfast, after breakfast, what time I’ll return, etc.

Our fourth aupair was from China, the country where my children were born. I knew, through the time we spent on the phone and using Skype, that her English was not at a level of previous aupairs. I still knew she was the right aupair for us, and she was. I used Board Maker, a computer program that teachers and speech therapists have access to. I created documents using graphics to show our morning routine before breakfast, after breakfast, after school, and in the evening. I also created a document with graphics showing the responsibilities my daughters had throughout the week, as well as our aupair. I spent several hours doing this, and it was a life-saver, as our aupair arrived Thursday night, and on Friday morning, I was sick with the flu. Our dear aupair, used those graphics, and kept us afloat her first few days with us. I was upstairs so sick, fearing our aupair would think she’d matched with the family from hell, and she’d leave us. She stepped up to the plate from the first moment, and kept stepping up to the plate the entire time she was with us.

When I’ve felt that my aupairs may not be able to understand everything that I’m explaining verbally, I have also provided written instructions through e-mails. They use their electronic translators for words they do not know.

I fear you’re dealing with issues much greater than language. I’ve hosted five aupairs, three of which were super experiences. The two that were removed from the program rarely spent any time with our family when they were not working. Had they done this, they would have seen me modeling the tasks that they needed to do during the week. These aupairs spent most of their time, when they were not working, engaged in their native language, with friends from their home country. They did not connect with other aupairs from the program, again, where they could have communicated in English, a common language.

You are dealing with more than a language issue. I would suggest consulting with your LCC, and then meeting together with your aupair to discuss concerns, giving her some time to get up to speed, and then make a decision whether you’ll go into rematch or keep this aupair. So far, your children haven’t been injured, to your knowledge. This needs to be addressed and changed promptly, to ensure that they are not injured.

As a mom, I am very concerned that your aupair is tuning you and your children out. When little children ask for something politely, the first time, they need to know that we respond to their request, happily. In time, they’ll be frustrated with her not attending to them, and they won’t be asking so politely. Clearly, you have taught your children to be polite and ask for things politely. That is their job, and it is the job of the aupair to be attuned to them, even when she doesn’t understand every word they’re saying. I’m seeing big, red flags, swinging in the wind…

Bruna June 28, 2009 at 8:57 am

I simply wouldn’t choose an au pair who cannot speak english properly (and understand). What if something serious happens and she is not even able to call 911 and understand instructions? Sorry about the drama, but at the end of the day you need someone there to play AND to deal with serious stuff as well. I had a hard time understanding the kids when I first arrived too, they were practically teenagers (14, 12 and 10) and spoke as fast as they could. But I understood the hostparents entirely and it took me only a couple of days to figure out the kids’ teen-speed vocabulary. I just don’t see this program as an opportunity to learn english, but as an opportunity to improve it.

Anonymous June 28, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Thanks for the post! I have a very similar problem. My (rematch) AP has a great application; she is older and experienced so we expect her to have some of her own ideas based on experience. We had one AP who was 25 and sort of “set in her ways” and although her English never improved she did talk to me about her ideas with regard to the children or our house if she disagreed with me. At first I thought the current AP was not following my instructions because she thought her way “was better” but when I speak with her about things she says, “I tell you when something is wrong.” So I began to think she isn’t understanding English well. I wrote some very clear, explicit instructions (beyond what is in our manual) and gave her time to translate them. I am closely monitoring the situation; if she’s coachable and needs time to improve her English, I’ll work with her. If she disagrees with me but can’t discuss her ideas AND doesn’t follow my wishes…rematch. Anyone have other suggestions?!

Anonymous June 28, 2009 at 8:45 pm

I interviewed many au pairs. A great deal of the applications indicated that they were a level 5 in English, but they couldn’t answer a basic question in English. I quickly moved on to the next. I felt like I was wasting my time. Apparently, all countries do not rate the English level the same. In my opinion, you must have an au pair that speaks English well in order to help kids with homework, etc. Older kids will not listen to anyone that they can not understand. Agencies need to do a better job with the screening process. Yes – they can improve their English, but they need to be fluent when they arrive, at least with older kids. My current au pair speaks English very well, but has a heavy accent that we are dealing with. English is her second language, but she spoke a lot of English before coming here. This was very high on my list of absolute requirements. You still have to deal with cultural differences which cam make communication a challenge at times. This is something that you can work with.

Good luck

Anonymous June 29, 2009 at 12:16 pm

When you interview someone from a particular country, take a look at a couple of other applications from that same country .Do all of the applications sound alike ? Do they sound as if they were written by the same person ? If so, move on.
Different countries have different ideas of what passes for acceptable English.
Ask your agency who interviews the applicants oversees ? Is it your agency or is it a travel agency with whom the do business. Some of the oversees organizations work with a number of US agencies.
Also, figure out a way to make sure that the applicant herself is emailing you.

Former AP July 16, 2010 at 2:38 am

You have mentioned some really important things to look for when screening an AP. I was an AP myself and I’m involved in a group that helps girls who are and want to be APs… Reading the posts in the forums there I see that many girls kind of copy other girls’ letters (just changing the words to match their hobbies, where they live and so on), they pass out questions to ask HF when they call them. I watch AP videos on a certain agency’s web site and even in this AP group’s website and I see how all candidates sound alike, it’s like they have a script they follow. This gives HF the impression the girls can really communicate in English, but the truth is that they have had someone else write a script for them to say in front of the camera! You can tell that by noticing how they can’t barely says the words, they make horrible pronunciation mistakes!

Also, what you said about different countries having different English acceptance levels. When I was an AP I noticed that from the 15 Brazilian AP that took the AP training with my in NY, just 3 of us spoke English fluently. Two of them didn’t even speak enough to answer basic questions such as “Where are you going to live?”, “How many children are you going to take care of?” or “What are the kids’ ages?”. I think that Brazilian agencies are so profit-focused that they’ll pass just any girl on their English test so they can make more money. The bad side os that is that HF have hired girls who can’t communicate with their children and would be unable to call emergency, ask for help or make any important decisions in case of an accident. It’s a safety issue!

I think that HF should call the candidates they are screening and ask several questions to check if their English level is acceptable, and they should call more than once just in case then ask someone who speaks better English to talk on the phone. Many people are Skype users nowadays, and HF should take advantage of that too.

And if the AP you chose seems to not speak English as well as you assumed (specially if she has lied about it) you should ask for a rematch.

Former AP July 16, 2010 at 2:40 am

Forgot to mention that at least the agency that took me to the U.S had a not-so-good interviewer, she even said my English was better than hers!

Grace June 29, 2009 at 4:44 pm

You are so right. They all sound alike. Even when you talk to the girls, the answers are all the same. It sounds like they are reading something. I had this issue with girls from South America. I called at least ten girls and couldn’t understand any of them. My agency will only give you one applicant at a time. Sometimes I would try for a week to get in touch with someone and then I couldn’t understand them. It was very frustrating. I thought I was paying to have these girls screened. The references were from family members and you couldn’t contact them. I found the whole process very difficult. I was looking for an older au pair since my kids are older and they recommended girls in Brazil, etc. Girls in the European countries seem to be 19-20 and want to AP prior to going to college.

Anonymous June 29, 2009 at 7:28 pm

This is a problem with agencies that only give you one application at a time or a couple each perhaps from a different country. My agency shows a couple at a time but each agency has a different selection process.
A girlfriend of mine told me to check the application to see if the interviewers were the same for girls whose English was so-so, great , or not too terrific. Some people have different standards.

Grace June 29, 2009 at 9:29 pm

I could not understand the comments from the interviewers. They either had eligible handwriting or it was a combination of English and another language. The translations from the references all said the same thing. How do you make a decision with no information. It just seems like luck.

Momofboys June 30, 2009 at 8:54 am

You might want to consider an 2nd year au pair. They have been in the country already for 1 year and hopefully gained some good experience with the English language already. My agency has a section of their website that only has applications from 2nd years looking to extend, so you can look at all the candidates and then request full applications if you are interested in a particular person.

Calif Mom June 30, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Our first AP was a rematch girl from Brazil. The reason she was in rematch was that she did not have good enough language skills for her original family. It takes some time–two weeks isn’t all that long for someone who really isn’t solid yet. Have you ever traveled and been forced to use a second language in order to eat and have a place to stay? Wow, it’s exhausting for the first several days.

Anyway, this AP had LOUSY English. The blank stare, everything. But she was/is so sweet and hard-working that we stuck it out. Even into her extension year, I could not reliably understand or give her instructions on the phone and be sure she understood. So we used email. Email is good! Written notes are good! Short sentences and easy words are good!

Original poster, I think you are not going overboard at all in providing a written schedule and explicit directions.
Just writing it down won’t work if you’re using elaborate constructions. Make sure you are simplifying the word choice and sentence structures.
Because I have several years of French, we discovered that there are many common roots between Portuguese and French, and when I used the French words it often helped us make sure we were understanding each other. If you know any Spanish, even better.

Forget waiting for college! Get her to a church or library that has the free, weekly or twice weekly “conversation groups”. These are awesome, and in our metro they really welcome APs. They are usually held at night, too.

As for the railing about agency screening–my hub jokes that any candidate who rates as “good” is barely functional stateside, that all the rest are excellent. You can’t rely on those assessments from the agencies! If you can’t contact the candidate easily, move on!

The AP I describe above told us on departure that her dad was on the extension phone during interviews, writing down what she should say.
But still and all, she was a wonderful AP! We miss her still. There is no perfect.

Anonymous June 30, 2009 at 1:25 pm

My sister had an aupair whose girlfriend wrote all the emails and took all the calls for the candidate. When the aupair arrived she could barely speak one word of English. However, because they liked her so much, the family stuck it out and even extended.
The truth is that the aupair’s English never really did improve significantly; she was , however, able to write well. I thought it was frightening that her biological family and the overseas agency accepted her but she was from a country where people are desperate to leave. She did, eventually, go awol , and is presently living in a community in the US ( illegally ) where the is a large contingent of people who speak her native language.

Calif Mom June 30, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Anonymous above, who has the new rematch AP— please be on guard with yourself for expecting age to equal maturity! Not always the case!

And your expectations matter a lot as you figure out this relationship wtih your new rematch AP. Back to basics! Especially in summer. Set expectations, monitor, but also give her some wiggle room so she isn’t so stressed out that she can’t manage to talk to you.

Our current AP had been matched with a family with one teenager, who was always plugged into his music. She learned a lot of English watching sponge bob. No fooling! She was very nervous in that family and says she could not speak well there at all, because she was so stressed and she just stammered around in English. Yet when she arrived in our house, we have not had many problems.

But I do speak slowly and clearly, and choose words carefully, and make sure to rephrase things when I might not be being clear. It’s kind of an art, really.

AnnaAuPair June 30, 2009 at 5:38 pm

In my opinion the agencies should do a better job in deciding who can be an AuPair or who can not. I know quiet a few AuPairs who didn’t understand a word of what was spoken during the orientation – the orientation where (if the AuPair doesn’t already know it) he / she learns important things about safety and caring for children. If they don’t understand what is said, how can you be sure they know how to react in certain situation. Apart from the fact that you as a family pay for the orientation – which, if the AuPair doesn’t understand anything, is wasted time.
One of the agencies I applied for told a friend of mine, she should take an English class and apply again the following year – I think THAT is the right way to do it.

Trina November 25, 2009 at 4:27 pm

AnnaAuPair – i’d love to know which agency advised your friend to take english and try again. can you give a hint as to the name?

AnnaAuPair November 26, 2009 at 8:18 am

I think the agency doesn’t do it normally. It was just the coordinator who interviewed her, who thought it would be better for her to improve her english first.
From meeting other AuPairs with the agency I know, that (unfortunately) the do take a lot of AuPairs who can hardly say their names and where they come from.
I guess it all depends on the interviewer – just as it depends on the LCC / AD in the US.

Tatyana July 4, 2009 at 12:38 pm

One point that wasn’t discussed by anyone who is hosting an au pair is the fact that people that are not fluent in another language have problems to MEMORIZE information. They can understand the words said, however, they are not able to keep them for future reference. A good tip would be in the first weeks WRITE DOWN everything you consider essential in your household. Post its, emails, anything that can be seen by the au pair several times (and she can make the “mental translation”.
The good news is this isn’t a permanent condition. When the au pair brain (and ears) get used to the sounds of the new language, everything will be back to normal.

Anna July 4, 2009 at 9:48 pm


most families have this information written down in GREAT DETAIL in their au pair/host family notebook. Pity is, some au pairs view this as an imposition and don’t bother to read or study it, and complain about its length. I had one au pair who didn’t appreciate it, and she ended up in rematch – this was a sign of her overall attitude. Other au pairs who where grateful for the time and effort I put into writing it, and into explaining it to them, turned out to be great au pairs.

MTR July 6, 2009 at 10:28 am

Tatyana ,

Unfortunately, sometimes, it is permanent condition, as I have learned the hard way with my previous au pair. No amount of handbooks, notes, emails, and txt messages helped this girl to follow directions about how to dress my kids and what to feed them. This girl just lived in the world of her own and 4 months that she was in my house were some of the most stressful months I have ever had.

NewAPMom July 6, 2009 at 11:00 am

There’s a book series called “The lilaguide bilingual babycare” that gives translations of childcare phrases. I think it might only be available in Spanish and French.

Anonymous July 13, 2009 at 1:05 pm

I think it really comes down to whether or not the AP is going/able to adopt to the things that are important to the HF. The language barrier can be addressed if the AP and the HF are willing to find a common ground. I’ve been able to communicate with AP’s who have poor English (and it never improved) and with those who disagreed with me (poor English or good English.) In the long run, if the AP and the HF can’t find a middle ground it’s not going to work. Granted, if you can’t communicate and you have different ideas, it can be very frustrating; I’m sure it’s very frustrating for an AP if she can’t make herself understood. We just had a horrible experience with an AP who disagreed AND couldn’t communicate effectively with us; I was doubting myself (did I try hard enough? was I patient enough?) until I saw the worst of our AP when she became angry with us about rematch. Then I knew that she had understood our manual and our written guidelines because she did everything we don’t approve of to spoil the children and to anger the HM and HD. (Where do I start? Diet coke in a toddler’s water bottle at the swimming pool? chocolate for children’s breakfast? Nail polish after the child says, “My Daddy doesn’t let me.”? a haircut with “don’t tell your parents”?, taking off in the car without permission…) And, I’m sure she told her new HF that we are horrible people who didn’t give her a chance, but I believe there are always 2 sides of the story. (New HF, Why didn’t you call us?) We weren’t able to make the changes we needed either because the AP wasn’t able to change her behavior or didn’t want to.

Sara Duke November 27, 2009 at 8:51 am

Our current au pair is from China. She has been studying English for about 8 years and understands the grammar beautifully, but her spoken English is on par with a previous au pair who had studied English for a year or two before coming to the US.

Our solution? I make her speak full sentences to me, and refuse to understand grunts or gestures. Recently, however, I ordered her to spend 5 hours on weekdays speaking English. I rarely have au pairs work more than 30 hours a week, so I made this requirement part of official work duty, and ask the au pair to report on whom she met, what they discussed. This particular au pair is painfully shy and admitted that she rarely spoke English, other than to my children, during weekdays.

She barely benefits from speaking to my children – my eldest is severely retarded and does not talk, and my 9-year-old is happy enough to read or go outside and play. However, I need her to be able to communicate when my daughter is ill – every au pair has had to face a medical emergency with her. At this point, I do a regular check-in, by compelling her to speak to me about her day’s activities when I get home.

(As for a previous comment about younger au pairs being immature – nothing could be further from the truth. I have had two European au pairs who were 19 and 20 when they arrived, and incredibly mature and demanding of my children. Neither were frivilous people. (Maybe my daughter helps us select mature people who are not just coming to the US for a good time before getting on with the rest of their lives?)

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