Au Pair Advice: Can we get her to speak the right language with the kids?

by cv harquail on May 21, 2009

Sing me Spanish techno?

This just in from Madrid!!  A host mom with a different kind of language challenge!

Just about every host family- au pair relationship I know of feels some kind of communication challenge… and these are always exacerbated when the host family and au pair grew up speaking different languages.  But this is supposed to add to the fun and learning, not make things too hard.

I know that some US au pair families look for au pairs who can speak a second language, so that they can converse with bilingual children or help build a second language competency in a household. This can be difficult to maintain, in part because au pairs themselves often want to learn English and would rather practice English in the house, and also because sometimes, we just need to revert to what’s easiest.

Maria shares an interesting challenge — Bilingual parents, Spanish-speaking kids who know very little English, and an English-speaking au pair who’s Spanish is, shall we say, peu commode.


Dear, I’m a host mom for the first time and I live in Spain. During my search I found your wonderful website, which is helping me more than a lot.

Our au-pair arrived a week ago and everything is running smooth for the moment; we’re trying hard to accommodate to each other and I’m satisfied so far. The only problem is that, although she is supposed to speak to my kids in English sometimes.

She was also asked about her knowledge of Spanish and she said she could have basic conversations. Now that she’s here, it seems she does not speak well at all and she is not able to speak to my son and daughter, therefore having real problems in entertaining them. She can take care of them in general, but almost no communication is possible. I speak fluent English and so does my husband, so there’s no problem there. But the kids don’t understand more than basic English, so…

She’s starting Spanish lessons next week, so I hope that will help. But on the other side she seems to be quite shy and almost says nothing at all to the kids, not even in English. And although I prepared a guidebook on her role at home, she always wait for me to tell her what to do, even it it has to do with just playing around or helping them eat dinner.

Am I being too exaggerated? Should I give all of us more time?

Has any of you moms had this kind of experience? I know it is completely different in the US, cause almost all girls will know at least a bit of English, but maybe you can give me some ideas about how to encourage her to talk a bit more?

Thanks a lot in advance and congratulations on your website! Best – María (Madrid, Spain)

Maria, I’ll start things off….

It’s unclear whether this is a personality issue (shyness, lack of initiative) or a language issue. I’d lead with/focus  on the language issue, but also find ways to nudge your au pair to take charge.

There are a million ways to learn a language… and other host parents and I can give suggestions about that. But the #1 thing that you have to do in your house is set up things up so that learning, speaking Spanish poorly, making mistakes, having communication problems, etc. is a FUN ADVENTURE. I suspect that your au pair not only feels overwhelmed by how little Spanish she understands, but also feels embarrassed that she can’t interact in Spanish the way she told you she could. Two big reasons to keep quiet.

1. Make it as easy and fun as you can for her to speak in Spanish with you. Once someone gets over the basic awkwardness and embarrassment of being incorrect or not knowing a word, it gets easier. But you have to get over that hurdle of looking foolish and dumb. Try to find ways to make it easier.

2. Ask her to read aloud to the children from their (Spanish) children’s books. Ask the kids to teach her some Spanish kids songs. Anything to get the rhythm of the language.

3. Create a game with the children so that they "teach" your au pair how to say simple things in Spanish. Create English-Spanish label cards and flash cards to teach your kids English words and her the Spanish words (also helps if your kids are learning to spell or to read.)

4. Make it a fun game in your house to have her practice speaking Spanish with you and your husband.

5. Give her little rewards for speaking Spanish (however poorly she does it). Tie these in to what you are currently doing with the kids. Do the kids get gold stars on a chart when they remember to wash their hands before lunch? Then give your au pair a chart and starts whenever she learns and uses a new phrase, like "Sweetpea, come wash your hands."

6.  Sign your au pair up for online Spanish classes (with something like Rosetta Stone). In my US town, this is available for free at our public library; maybe you can find a low cost way to rent or borrow software that she can use to augment her classes.

7.  Buy a portable Spanish-English dictionary for her AND one for your kitchen. Use it yourself to show her the right word(s) (sometimes showing is easier than explaining.)

Host parents and au pairs— what do you recommend?

[bonus points if you get the song reference in the title < grin > ]


Anonymous May 21, 2009 at 11:02 am

Seeing as this is Spanish we are talking about I just want to point out that an Au Pair from th US very likely learned ‘Mexican’ Spanish with different words and sounds. She may very well have felt comfortable speaking at a basic level here and upon arriving in Spain have trouble with the accent and word choices, and start doubting her abilities. I myself have found this to be true. It may take a few weeks to get an ear for the new sounds, she may feel uncomfortable speaking Spanish with a different accent (assure her it’s OK) and you may find that many basic word (especially for foods) are different. If this is the case the good news is that she will adapt quickly.

Jeana May 21, 2009 at 5:27 pm

I’m a host mom, and an ESL teacher. Your aupair needs to feel comfortable so that she can relax enough to try to use Spanish. We talk about people having an “affective filter”. It means that when a person is nervous, fearful of making a mistake, etc., it is very difficult to make any progress with language. The suggestions you’ve received already have been great; make sure your aupair knows you don’t expect her to speaking perfect Spanish with your children; you just want her to relax and start communicating with them. I’d try to promote playful times, and as suggested, find the humor. Whenever my aupairs say their English isn’t great, I tell them that it sure beats my German, Korean, Spanish, and Chinese (depending on the aupair)! My last Chinese aupair spent a year helping me learn how to say Starbucks in Mandarin, and we had oddles of laughs over me shouting, “Shim-buh-kuh!” everytime we’d drive by a Starbucks!!! Just start talking to your aupair in Spanish…ask her about her family…her goals…her friendships. Have a great year!

Franzi May 21, 2009 at 5:41 pm

i don’t get it. is the AP supposed to speak spanish or english with the kids? as i understand the question, she is supposed to speak english and use her spanish when the kids don’t understand but neither language is working. ok, whatever – there’s a problem there that the AP is not talking, as in not talking at all.

language barriers can be very frustrating and i believe your AP needs to get over her “inner barriers to speak” (if that makes sense at all) before she is able to interact the way you want her to (and how she expected it to be like). granted, she doesn’t have much time to speak up – at the same time pressure will only make things worse and it will probably inhibit her even more from talking in spanish.

please give her the chance to want to speak. i like the idea of encouraging the kids to teach her words/make flash cards/post its that stick to the most important items in the house etc.
they can sing simple songs that use movements to explain words (songs you would sing for toddlers like itzy bitzy spider). they can play this game where you try to remember a certain order of words (in german it’s called “packing your bags”)

spanish lessons will help, but this will not change your immediate family situation.

Calif Mom May 22, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Our very first au pair was a lovely girl who couldn’t communicate more than to say “I’m hungry” in English. The first family she was placed with made her so nervous that she rematched herself. We met her and loved her spirit and she relaxed and learned a lot. Our second favorite au pair was another rematch girl, who was so stressed out by issues in her first host family that she stumbled and stuttered and spluttered and felt like she had lousy English. She placed well enough on the college placement to be allowed to take regular classes! Stress is a HUGE factor in one’s ability to use a second language. I drew a lot of sketches with our first au pair.

All good advice above. Let her know you aren’t going to abandon her just because she’s having a hard time.

And yes, one week is still very soon! Let her breathe, and take some deep breaths yourself, and things will probably improve quickly.

Bon chance! (I have no spanish at all) : )

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