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Au Pair w/poor English - bad idea?

18 replies

MizZan · 08/08/2005 11:53

We have just made an offer to our first au pair ever (well, our second - the first one decided not to show up and didn't bother telling us...). She is Slovak and has just been an au pair in Paris for a year. She seems lovely and is already in the UK, so I've been able to meet her in person.

She speaks great French but very poor English. I'm concerned that we may be making our own lives difficult, and my very chatty 3 1/2 year old's life frustrating/boring, because she won't be able to communicate. I can speak to her in French, but my son doesn't speak it at all. We'll have a new baby in November that she'll be helping with too, and I don't think the language matters so much for that, but I'm a bit worried about day-to-day life and my son's language skills.

Any words of wisdom from those of you who've been through this? I should say we have been looking for an au pair or part-time nanny for some time, and this person seemed like the nicest by far (at least the nicest who also met our other general requirements - language aside) - otherwise I wouldn't consider her.

OP posts:

Ameriscot2005 · 08/08/2005 12:19

My first au pair had very poor (virtually non-existant) English which did not improve much over the 5 months that she was with us, despite 9 hours of English classes per week.

At first, I wasn't worried, because I thought she would pick up English very quickly and the whole point of being an au pair is to learn English. However, it was a very stressful situation as it was so difficult to ask her to do simple things, to change anything that she did, or to give her any feedback. She would not try to speak to us or to speak with the children, and therefore did not play with the children.

As for your situation, I don't think I would worry too much about your son's language skills, as he will have plenty of exposure to good English from other sources, and he will develop strategies to make himself understood with the au pair. If you can speak to her in French (as a last resort), then that can remove some of the stress points.

A lot has to do with her attitude overall. Do you know if she could speak French before going to France? If she couldn't, then that would demonstrate that she is willing to learn and succeed, and hopefully she'd do the same with English. Just being able to speak a second language seems like a good sign, though.

Will she have opportunities to go to English classes in your area? And are these free or at a cost she can afford (not much point if they are out of reach)?

On the flip side, good English isn't necessarily a good thing either, as they miss out on langugage classes and therefore a ready-made social life. I think the best situation is someone who speaks an intermediate level yet still qualifies for free classes.


colditz · 08/08/2005 12:22

I think as she already speaks good French, she has shown herself willing to learn a different language, so will probably pick up English pretty quickly.


purpleturtle · 08/08/2005 12:35

I au paired in Germany over 10 years ago for a family who had been employing English girls for 20 years. I had A-Level German, and I was the first girl who'd gone who could speak German when I got there! For them, the important thing was that the mother could communicate with the au pair. The children were a little bit older when I went, and (in theory) they would have been able to practise their English with a non-German speaker.

Presumably, you'll be around to communicate with your son a lot of the time, and I'm sure that as she speaks French already, she'll pick up basic commands in English pretty quickly.


goldenoldie · 08/08/2005 13:12

Sorry to sound a negative note - but this could be very stressful unless you are going to be around all day?

If AP is never going to be on her own with your DS then no problem, but what happens when you are not there and AP and DS just can't communicate?

How can they build a relationship/play/enjoy each others company if they can't communicate with each other?

I would build in a trial period into the contract - say two months. This will give both parties an opportunity to see if it is really working/English improving and a set time to sit down and talk about ending it or going forward.

Some APs have no interest in going beyond the basics in English anyway (particularly if they have to pay for classes), fine if you have an older child, but not good for the language development of a toddler.


MizZan · 08/08/2005 15:27

thank you all for the feedback. I am really torn about this. I will be around most of the time (on maternity leave), but when she's with my son, I don't want to always have to be in the room to translate - she's here so I can get other stuff done, preferably on my own (or with baby, later). He's a very verbal kid and much of his play involves pretending and stuff that is word-based. She seems very kid-oriented and friendly, but I do worry that they wouldn't really be able to play together...which would certainly defeat part of the purpose. am I just expecting too much?

OP posts:

Hausfrau · 08/08/2005 15:32

This reply has been deleted

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Ameriscot2005 · 08/08/2005 15:35

Your son probably won't have any problems with her. He will probably enjoy teaching her the English words for things. She will soon learn the words for things that he wants - juice etc. - and if he can't explain things to her, I'm sure that he will take her hand and show her. If he is going through the asking question phase (as my 3 year old is), he'll soon realise that she doesn't have the answers and will save them up for mum and dad. Children are very adaptable!

I would really encourage you to use your French as a last resort. The more they can avoid speaking English, the longer it takes to build up the confidence.

It's good that you are mindful of the potential issues, but given that you are very positive about this girl otherwise, I'm sure you will overcome any problems.


uwila · 08/08/2005 16:10

I agree that I wouldn't worry so much about her communicating wit the toddler. They will probably be happy to teach/learn from each other. But what I would consider is the likelihood that she might need to communicate with the outside world on his behalf. What if she had to call NHS direct? Whould that be a problem? What about getting on a bus? Going to the grocery store?

Can you see her again on a second interview basis. Maybe go out to the zoo or something and ask her to go order the lunch and see how she gets on.


goldenoldie · 08/08/2005 17:12

Uwila - good idea!


Tanzie · 08/08/2005 20:28

If she's picked up French to a good standard in a year, I think that's a recommendation that she will do the same with English. We had an au pair who had a fairly basic knowledge of English when she came to us and after a very short space of time she was pretty fluent. I think you should go for it. Slovaks are fab too!


goldenoldie · 09/08/2005 07:08

Still think this could turn out to be very hard work, but as you say you will be around/in house all the time then you will quickly find out if it is going to work.

Uwila has a good point - how will she travel on public transport, how will she run errands for you, how will she deal with anyone who knocks on the front door?

I would not bank on getting much else done while she is around - at least until she has a better command of the language.

There are so, so many APs out there, surprised you could not find one that met all your requirements, and spoke reasonable English?


MizZan · 09/08/2005 10:37

thanks again to all for your thoughts.

This au pair did not pick up French in a year - she worked for a French family in Slovakia for two years as an au pair/sitter before going to Paris. So I'm not sure how much that indicates about her ability to learn English quickly, though when I interviewed her she was very clear that her main purpose in coming here was to learn English (as opposed to, say, earn money, escape weirdo boyfriend, etc. - as seemed to be the case with many others we spoke with). She is a teacher by training and seems like a studious type (I know, you never know!) so I have to hope she'd be serious about improving.

I agree this may be very hard work and think we may ask her to come in and do a "day out" with me and my son to see how well she copes, linguistically, as suggested. I'm not really in a position to review things two months after she starts, since at that point I'll be dealing with a brand-new baby (or about to have one) and a jealous 3 1/2 year old who needs to be shuttled back and forth to school every day, and I don't see myself having time to locate new help, plus it would be pretty disruptive for my son to have the arrangement end right as the baby arrives.

Also thought about sending her to an "intensive" (15-20 hrs/week) language course for 2 weeks right when she starts, and just paying for it ourselves but not paying her salary those two weeks (cost of the course is several times her weekly salary). Unfortunately all the cheaper English classes around here only seem to meet for 2 hours once a week, and I can't see that really getting her very far.

I wish we could find someone who met all our requirements perfectly, but honestly we've been looking for months and had numerous false starts and two major let-downs (one of which was the au pair not showing up on the day she was meant to start, despite having only 2 days before confirmed to her previous family that she intended to come and work for us!). The thing most of these had in common was that the girl was not here yet or we had not met her, and it seemed like it was then all too easy for her to change her mind/find a different family, or just disappear if we didn't make her an offer fast enough. So I am very reluctant to make another offer to someone who is not here, and prepared to meet us first. That definitely limits the pool of candidates.

We just moved to the city we live in about a week and a half ago, so I don't have a strong local network of mums/nannies that I could tap into for suggestions (thank goodness for mumsnet!), and as I'm still working myself at the moment I have to limit the amount of time I spend on the hunt...especially since I've already spent an awful lot of time on it. We currently have a temp part-time nanny through an agency, to take us through till I go on maternity leave, but the cost is so high that I can't see continuing this once I am no longer being paid (said nanny, who is great, is also going back to school and not available after end of Sept.). Am also considering just getting in a local student to help with mornings/school runs, but it seemed like with the baby, a live-in au pair might simplify things (we have no helpful relatives or anything like that, and no friends here as we just moved...) and also provide some continuity for my son.


OP posts:

Ameriscot2005 · 09/08/2005 14:24

Her French skills still sound very impressive to me.


uwila · 09/08/2005 15:49

Hi Mizzan,
The more I think about this I think the less bothered I would be about the french. When it comes to looking after my kids there are frankly more important things than a language barrier. Huge bonus points for being a teacher when you have a 3 1/2 year old.

But, and I'm sorry to do this, I've got another concern. How long do you want her to stay. She seems a bit overqualified once her English improves. Are you prepared for her to do say 6 months and then bugger off? You might be. My last nanny was a bit overqualified and it brought some problems. There were a couple of topics where she felt she was better qualified to judge and told me so. This did not fly with me. And had she not handed in her resignation this charming attitude was going to find her with my notice in her hand. But, thankfully she resigned and so I didn't have to be the bad guy.


MizZan · 09/08/2005 21:28

well, uwila, she stayed at her au pair job in paris for a full year, and she was definitely more overqualified for that than she is for our job, since she already spoke good French! so I have to hope for the best, I think. I realize many of them don't stay more than 6 months and I guess we will just have to live with that, if it comes to it. First thing is to get her back in again, though, and then see how we feel about it.

I do hear you on the overqualified nanny syndrome...I had a major confrontation (the only serious one I've ever had with a nanny, actually) with a part-timer working for us last year who just thought she was overqualified (she was far from it), and therefore second-guessed me on everything from when it was appropriate to buy my son toys, to whether it was ok to refreeze meat that had previously been frozen . And the confrontation was over the fact that I had the nerve to ask if she'd be up for doing some housework during the 3 (paid, at normal rate) hours she had free while my son was at nursery school, which needless to say, she was not. Since she was only with us for a short while, by prior agreement, I let this and other things go, but was still really annoyed by her, especially since she left the house a complete mess every time she came...meanwhile far more experienced nannies and carers have worked for us and been brilliant without any of the attitude. I do think part of being a good nanny is knowing how to manage the parent(s) . As in any job, it pays to be nice to the boss. But I realize the au pair set up is a different ball game, hopefully we can handle it ok.

OP posts:

Ameriscot2005 · 10/08/2005 08:38

I personally wouldn't get hung up on the time-frame. I offer my au pairs just for the school term, ie 3 months at a time. It feels right, even though it's a lot of recruiting.


ThePrisoner · 12/08/2005 19:56

I have childminded German children (both aged approx 3 years) in the past who spoke no English, and my ability to speak their language was limited to having "done a bit" at school! It was a very good learning curve - the mum wrote the German for "what is this?" so I could point at something and ask, the child would reply, and I would say whatever it was in English!

I also had some phrases written down for me in German such as "would you like a drink?", "are you hungry?" etc.

The children seemed quite happy to be in the charge of someone who didn't understand a word they said!


UKMickey · 13/08/2005 02:28

As you are saying this young woman is a child care professional in her own right and proven herself to have worked with a family as a childcarer/nanny who has in addition to her own mother tongue learn't French, obviusly now wants to again further improve herself by being fluent in English, but in doing so, she is working in the field she is professional & vocational with.

I don't think it will be long for her to pick up how to read your son... volume contol whether happy, upset or tantrum shortly to errupt because she is a childcare professional & if she has been an excellent childcarer for her previous family( she did relocate with them to Paris), your son should adapt to this lady as her ease with children from her manner, humming, singing, been bemusing, certain games international known "hide & seek" painting, getting messy etc...better to have a warm, caring relationship installed before new addition arrives.
They can learn their ABC's, numbers together.
For an emergency have written in Slovakian!/French/English on proceedure...this could also be shown to outsider/neighbour/etc.

I think this will be very exciting for you all. Caring, being very helpful & hugs don't have to be in is down to the personality of the person who is genuine.

Congrats on new baby & good luck to whatever you choose.

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