Will a Host Family Take Me if I Struggle with English?

by cv harquail on December 3, 2010

We got this question from a potential au pair —

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Aupair mom,

It is nice to find a place like these, at the moment im I am in the early stages of my application as Aupair in America. i have been reading a lot of posts, and it have been very interesting and helpful.

To be honest reading the perspective of HM and HD makes me feel more committed to my role and also gives me a little scared because my oral English skills are not the best, then I wonder there will be families with a willingness to help me in this?

I really want a family how incluide me as part of it and these is based in communication, so im concerned that my english skill afect this.

Natalia

Dear Natalia-

Every host family has a different need for their au pair’s language ability. Some people need an au pair who is fluent in English. Other families can manage with an au pair who starts with weak spoken English, especially if a host parent speaks the au pair’s native tongue, and/or if the children are tiny and not talking much themselves.

What parents need is an au pair who is willing and able to learn to speak English more fluently.

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Some au pairs arrive in the US and sign up for English-As-A-Second-Language (ESL) classes right away. They throw themselves into learning. They get an electronic or paper English dictionary and carry it everywhere. They practice English with their au pair friends, with strangers, and with their host parents, and they make becoming more fluent a top priority.

Some au pairs sign up for extra English practice before they even match with a family. They find a site online, get some tapes & cds from the library, and practice reading American fashion magazines out loud just to get some practice with how the words flow.

Other au pairs arrive speaking English slowly and not well, are afraid to open their mouths and make mistakes, are embarrassed to be misunderstood or to be unable to explain themselves, and feel too nervous to really try. These au pairs are often more homesick, and less effective with the children and in the family, because they struggle to communicate.

Which kind of au pair do you think you’ll be?

Keep in mind, it’s not just about how fluent you are– it’s about how much you care about making a personal connection, the kind of connection that can best be made when people share some amount of a particular language. The kind of person who’d write a question like yours on a blog strikes me as the kind of person who cares about communicating and is going to take the chance and reach out.

— cv/apm

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What else should Natalia think about?

See also:

{ 17 comments }

Calif Mom December 3, 2010 at 1:07 pm

As CV said above, it depends on the family.

One of our favorite au pairs barely had a year’s worth of English when she arrived. (We learned this later, as she was heading home after her two years with our family.)

To be honest, her lack of ability to both understand and speak English did not work for her first family, who sent her into rematch after a week or two.

We met her while we were in rematch, at a playground so I could see how she interacted with the children. She had such enthusiasm, energy, and positive spirit that we worked around the English problems while she ‘caught up”.

Because of her other traits–her energy and confidence–she was one who signed up for every free English conversation class she could find. She must have gone to conversation groups at 3 different churches in our area each week. She worked really hard, asked a ton of questions when she didn’t understand me, and was happy to make mistakes and learn from them.

Because I speak French and she spoke Portuguese (which have many similar words/roots), and I was working from home during that time, we could communicate just fine while she improved her English.

I will be honest: many families will NOT want you if you score poorly on the evaluation. That’s okay. Be patient. Instead, your job is to find the family that appreciates your energy, heart, good judgment, experience, and true LOVE of kids. Show them your maturity and your independence, and your willingness to work very hard. Those things are much less “learnable” once you get here. English can be picked up quickly enough.

Best of luck!

StephinBoston December 3, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Our first and beloved au pair barely spoke English when she came, I’m seriously talking VERY little. She could not have written the post you wrote. She couldn’t understand anything we said (I had interviewed her with a friend who spoke Portuguese so I was confident she would be a great au pair). We had young boys at the time, 2 years and 5 months so we really didn’t need amazing English skills, what we needed was a loving, caring and patient au pair to nurture our boys. She was all that and we loved all loved her, over the two years she stayed with us, she took countless classes, and by the time she left, she could speak and write really well. I echo what others have said, it’s all about your attitude and how much you want to put into the experience and the family relationship.

Tashina December 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I am interviewing for our second au pair right now. I have spoken to a few with amazing English, but who didn’t not give me a good feeling about their spirit. One with moderate English skills makes me happy and I think she may be the one for us. You should do your best to show your warmth, energy and caring for children while working hard to improve. The right family will find you.

PA AP mom December 3, 2010 at 3:15 pm

I think you will be able to find a great family!

I require a high English evaluation score because both of my boys are in school and regular homework help is a job requirement. Because of their ages, the AP MUST have a good grasp on English to be able to assist them.

That said, I know several families with younger children who don’t mind if an AP’s English is not quite as good.

There is a family out there for you. Be patient. Good luck!!!!

KM December 3, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Our English threshold is whether an au pair can communicate an emergency to a 911 operator. If she can’t, we won’t take the risk either for her or for our family. This would put her in a vulnerable situation should something happen where seconds were on the line.

OB Mom December 3, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Our son has life threatening food allergies, so English is fairly important, especially in understanding what he can and cannot eat. However, he manages it fairly independently now (he’s 10) so English isn’t as critical as it was when he was 6 (our 1st AP). Our 2nd AP had terrible English when she started and, like CV said, brought a dictionary with her everywhere. I was mainly worried when the kids started talking about their pop culture things and she couldnt’ participate in the conversations they were having, so they started to ignore her. I even remember calling the LCC and asking “how long does it take for them to improve their English?”

Well, it really didn’t take that long … ~2 months and all the concerns were over. She wanted us to help her with her English, so we all (including the kids) would help correct her. She took free English classes at the local college and seemed to go 2-3 times a week. She was committed to improving and it was actually one of the main reasons she came. She took the TOEFL test at the end of her year and scored so high on it that it helped her get into the prestigious college of her choice. I was really proud of her achievements and know that it was because she was dedicated to it.

That being said, it is always funny when AP’s say things incorrectly. Just this morning, our current AP (who’s English is moderate), when she was talking about taking the kids to school late after a Dr appt, said she would “throw DS out” first. :-)

You need to find a family that is patient with your learning and make up for it by being extra special and involved in all the other ways mentioned above. Good Luck! (p.s. your written English seems fine)

Taking a Computer Lunch December 3, 2010 at 9:14 pm

We have hosted APs with a variety of English abilities. Our first AP had only studied English after work for a couple of years, but she had a very good ear, and constantly quizzed me about slang she had heard, and new vocabulary words she had read. She had been a pediatric intensive care nurse, so she new how to handle The Camel and was great with our son who was an infant when she arrived. We hosted a Brazilian AP who came with excellent reading and writing skills, but had never heard English spoken by a native speaker. There was a steep learning curve while she developed her listening and speaking skills, but it really was only a matter of weeks before she “got it.”

And then we hosted an AP whose reading and writing were moderate, but her heart was in the right place. It turned out that although she had heard English spoken by native speakers, she was a “B” student and struggled to make progress. After about three months I had to lay it on the line — because I didn’t think she could call 911 successfully — and required her to spend 10 hours a week working on English (it could be as simple as calling another AP for coffee, going to a store and asking questions, or taking a free class). This AP only took care of our children for about 25 hours a week on average, so I felt that we were well within our limits in demanding that she practice English. She did improve enough that we stopped threatening rematch, but when it became clear we were not going to extend with her, her English ability plummeted immediately.

The bottom line, practice speaking English with your friends. Find some sample questions that a HF might ask an AP and have a friend ask you to answer in English. The more you practice your speaking ability, the easier it will be for you to match. HF are not just looking for impeccable English speakers, we’re also looking for candidates that obviously love children. Don’t have a friend help you translate the telephone interview, just be yourself! Once you arrive, the more you talk and listen the easier it will be to improve.

DarthaStewart December 4, 2010 at 8:02 am

I’ve had language skills all over the map. And I’ve had experience all over the map when it comes to actually learning English too.

There are host families who will take an au-pair whose English isn’t so great to start with. But what I advise is working on your English in your home country, then when you arrive here, do NOT surround yourself with friends from your home language. Go out, make other friends from other cultures, and speak, speak, speak. Immerse yourself. If you truly immerse yourself, it will take no more than 2 months to learn the language to a decent level. (Then keep working- it will get better and better).

One of my au-pairs came in with almost no English, and after a few weeks, she was conversant, and at a year, it was beautiful.

honeywhite December 4, 2010 at 11:24 pm

We’ve had au pairs with a range of English skills and our current au pair’s English skills are extremely weak. She’s working on it (though it took threat of re-match to finally get her to start socializing enough to make a difference and to start taking an English class) and it is starting to improve. However at 9 my daughter is better able to navigate with a poor English speaker-our very first au pair also has poor English; our daughter was only 3 at the time and this au pair could not adequately communicate critical information to us–such as if our daughter was not feeling well what her symptoms were. This au pair left early due to family emergency but we might have had to break the match otherwise. I thought a certain degree of fluency was required as part of the program; anyone considering becoming an au pair should be reasonably conversant and should work hard on their English prior to application– communication skills will be much more important than written.

Natalia December 4, 2010 at 11:26 pm

I’m Glad to read your posts, is really nice to see your interest in my question.

To make u a better idea of me, i haven’t practice my English since i graduated from school 6 years ago (and at school i was very shy so i didn’t risk my self to participate in my English classes), but i usually listen English music and watch American TV show.

Some month ago i enjoy to a social network for backpacker and through it a meet some people who only speak English, it have been a good experience because i though i realize that a can talk about general things but when i try start a deeper conversation i get fall short of word.

My concern was about how a HF adapt to my skills and the patience they will have, but reading you i filled of hope and in God that i will find a family like yours will be helpful… and as friend said in her blog “Children could be excellent language teachers: they use simple sentences but with perfect grammar, and just by playing with them you learn sooooo much! And the best of all: they can be incredibly patient with adults” So i have the urge do my part and learn from all that will be around me.

Thank to all u.. blessings.

NorCaMom December 5, 2010 at 11:14 am

Natalia – you sound like you have a very generous and adventurous spirit – be brave about practicing when you arrive, snap up those ESL courses like crazy, speak English with all your friends (even your friends from your home country!) and you will find that, immersed here, you will do great!

My only advice is be very honest with your host family about your assessment & experience with English, and your willingness to learn. It is easy for some of us (especially less experienced with matching) to assume more proficiency in English based on written skills – even though I myself have great reading & writing skills in a few languages, but am not verbally fluent in any of them! So be honest and express your commitment to learn.

As a family with younger children, I can assure you that we have taken in two au pairs (and extended with both) who were not fluent in English but dove right into strengthening their English when they arrived, and we did great!

Calif Mom December 6, 2010 at 10:49 am

This is very true– depending on their age, children love to *help* their au pairs by teaching them English. And they have no hesitation in correcting an au pair who says something that’s not quite right. This immediate and clear feedback will help you learn quickly. I believe most au pairs learn more English from the children than from the host parents!

I also think you probably have better English skills than you think! Good luck!

Aupairgal December 6, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I also think because children speak correctly yet still simply, it can help someone learn the very important basics of the language without getting muddled down in all the filler and fancy precision words that adults tend to use.

CO Host Mom December 5, 2010 at 8:01 pm

We just rematched with an AP with poor English skills. There were many other concerns as well, and the poor English alone would not have caused the relationship (and did not keep us from choosing her in the first place). Still, it was a lesson for me. Our previous APs had excellent English, and I did not realize how much it would frustrate me that AP could not understand me. Or, how much it would frustrate the kids…especially the 4 year old.

I have traveled extensively and have lived overseas so I thought I had the necessary patience and willingness to work with her on her English and to help her along. But in reality, it was just so frustrating having to repeat everything multiple times. Especially if I really needed her to do something for me NOW and didn’t have 10 minutes to explain every word I’d said to her. Ugh….

But all that being said, if she had been a great AP in other respects, I would have continued to work on the English.

azmom December 6, 2010 at 2:22 am

I think many families would consider you but be sure to indicate how you plan (and follow through!!!) to improve your English – we are in rematch because AP basically did not integrate so on top of the small things, she didn’t seem willing to learn more about the US, family life here, or, in the end improve her English (I mean even begging her to watch US TV to improve her language skills!)… Because my husband’s mother doesn’t speak the best English and I’ve traveled with very little of the other language ability, I’m fine with less than stellar English, but willingness, to me, is top!

Steff December 6, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I think you would find a family. You send quite a nice “vibe”. In my opinion anyway, I think you should start trying to improve since now. I just began the matching process so I hadn’t exactly had my first conversation with future HF quite yet, though I’m really excited about, so I guess you should try to practice as much as you can and with the little things before you go. Do you know when you are going? More or less? My plan for example is June Next year, so I don’t know, if you still have time before leaving you should take the most advantage out of it. I also hadn’t practice English in a while (3 years since I also finished High School) but even I was amaze with everything I did remember and how it wasn’t that hard to make other people understand me. I know I got mostly grammar issues, but I guess I’ll learn that better with time (Hopefully in the US already hihih!!) But for example watching American Shows helps you SO much with pronunciation and just how words “flow” together. You should probably check for US Idioms since those I think you should know before getting to the country.
Oooh, and also you should maybe watch BRITISH shows too! Those ones would help you a looott to understand better people who doesn’t have the clearest of English in my opinion.
I like you have quite a lot of on-line friends from all over the world who only speak English, and that is REALLY REALLY helpful. It helps tons when you are sites when you are actually in the “obligation” of speaking in English (Just like here hehe)
So anyway, I tend to get carry away sometimes, I don’t even know if I got any right to “advice” since I’m probably in the same situation as you (Wishing and hoping for the very best HostFamily) but I still thought it will be okay if I let you know what I think hehe ;)

GOOD LUCK!
&…Regards from Colombia hehe ;)

Natalia December 7, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Steff thanks for ur advices, is nice to read the perspective of someone who is in the same rol. Im want to leave on january or february, but all depends if i find a host family soon. So i dont know if that enough time to practice, but im trying.

Find this place it have been very helpful to “study” and take out the dust of my English, because im very interest reading all the post and am using google translator with the aplication of heard the pronunciation jijiji.

By the way in from Colombia too.

Take care and good luck too!!

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