When considering the au pair program, many parents wonder about the degree of cultural exchange that actually takes place during an au pair’s stay. Specifically, they may question whether it is realistic to expect their children to learn the foreign language spoken by their new childcare provider. The answer to that question is: it depends. In speaking to many host families over the years, I’ve found that there are three categories they generally fall into when it comes to this topic.
1. Families whose children become bilingual thanks to their au pairs
Megan Heron, a Cultural Care host mom in Pittsburg, CA says, “I have always wanted to raise my children to be bilingual, so when I interviewed my current au pair, I told her I wanted her to speak only Spanish to my boys.” When Megan’s au pair Eugenia arrived from Argentina she brought Spanish children’s books and mp3s of Spanish music to read and play for them. Eugenia also sings to her 7-month-old twin boys in Spanish. Megan will continue to host Spanish-speaking au pairs in the future “So that my boys will continue to have the language immersion.”
The Rosen family with their first Chinese au pair, Hong Wang.
Erica and Brad Rosen, host parents in Lincoln, MA, have two boys, ages 5 and 3 years, and they have hosted Chinese au pairs since 2010. Says Erica, “One of the things that is very important to us is that our children learn a second language as early and as “naturally” as possible. So we expect that their au pair speaks only Chinese with them, at all times—unless English is necessary to briefly deal with a safety concern.” Asher and Brenner are now fluent in Chinese—a great advantage for navigating a global workplace later in life.
In order to ensure host children become truly bilingual, it does take discipline and effort from both parents and au pairs. Host parents need to commit to hosting au pairs from the same part of the world year after year if they want language immersion to continue. They should also be upfront about their wishes when interviewing potential candidates. Says Alyson Rhodes, Sales and Placement Director for Cultural Care Au Pair, “If a host family wants their au pair to be speaking only their native language with the kids, they should mention that during their interview and in their application so au pairs are clued in. One of the reasons au pairs come to the U.S. is to strengthen their English skills, so they will also want to be reassured that they’ll be speaking English when the parents are around.” Au pairs also need to be vigilant about speaking only their native language when around the children. Usually this is not a problem and is a welcome break from English.
Parents should also factor in how the age of their children will affect their ability to learn a new language from their au pair. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), “Beginning foreign language instruction early sets the stage for students’ to develop advanced levels of proficiencies in one or more languages. In addition, younger learners still possess the capacity to develop near native-like pronunciation and intonation in a new language.” In other words, the younger your children are when first exposed to an au pair’s language, the easier it will be for them to become bilingual.
The Bauer family has hosted a total of 10 au pairs to help Alex and Elena master the German language.
2. Families whose children are already learning another language—but need help
There are some host families who choose the au pair program at least in part to support language learning that is happening at home or at their children’s immersion schools. So, they’re not relying on their au pairs to teach their children a new language from scratch, but rather to help them master a second language they already use.
For Sheila and Andi Bauer, host parents in Boxborough, MA, hosting German au pairs was a way to help their two children learn their dad’s native language. Andi, who was born and raised in Germany, has communicated with Elena and Alex in German since they were born. But, it can be hard to for children to become bilingual if they don’t hear a balance of both languages. According to the Linguistic Society of America, “Children need to hear both languages often and in a variety of circumstances. [If they hear one language less than the other] it is essential to find other sources of exposure and other ways of creating the sense of need.”
The Bauer’s ten German au pairs helped fill that gap. Says Sheila, “Both of my kids, who are now 10 and 8, are fluent in German and their au pairs helped make that possible.”
Mexican au pair Wendi De La Cruz speaks both Spanish and English with her host daughter, Juliana.
Host mom Rosa Hatton, whose family lives in southern FL, says, “We chose Wendi because she is from Mexico and I come from a Mexican-American family. I wanted [my daughter Juliana] to learn a Mexican dialect of Spanish and also be exposed to the Mexican culture and traditions from someone other than myself. We will absolutely continue to host Mexican au pairs so Juliana can practice her Spanish and continue learning.” One-year-old Juliana is now speaking in both English and Spanish.
Anna Greka, a host mom in Milton, MA, has two sons who attend a French immersion program at their school. She says of their French au pair, Manon Krouti, “She is perfect for helping with French homework and speaking to them in a French accent. They are quickly picking it up.”
The Matte children are learning some German words and phrases from their German au pair Franziska.
3. Families who enjoy the cultural exchange but don’t expect their kids will become bi-lingual
Most Cultural Care host families fall under this category—they appreciate the exposure to foreign languages and are simply happy to hear their children learning and using simple words and songs in their au pair’s language.
Trieste Matte, whose first au pair Franziska arrived from Germany in June 2012 says, “My children now have a German lullaby at bedtime, they are learning German phrases, and we have enjoyed many German meals together.”
Likewise, host mom Carrie Williams, says of her Danish au pair Liv, “She has taught us a few Danish words though we seemingly lack the ability to pronounce many of them correctly. Our four year old son seems to have the best ear for it.” Other than language, the Williams family also encourages cultural exchange through “Food, food, food! [Liv] has cooked lots of Danish recipes for us. We’ve also learned about some of her holiday traditions and songs.”
Depending on an individual family’s needs and goals, au pairs can help children become fluent in another language altogether or simply teach them a few words and songs in their native tongue.
Find out what other host families expect when it comes to their au pairs teaching their children a foreign language.
Host families, to what extend does language exchange happen in your household? Do you hope for your children to become fluent in the language spoken by your au pair? How realistic is this goal?