About 80% of our au pairs are non-native English speakers. When au pairs come to the United States with the aim to learn more about American culture, this often means improving their English skills! While all of our pairs are conversational in English, levels of fluency may vary.
Communication can be challenging, especially as your new au pair adjusts to the American accent and your home, family and community, all at the same time. Communication will improve over the course of the year, but here, we offer a few tips to get you started:
Don't ask "do you understand?" Ask comprehension-checking questions.
It's human nature to say "yes" when someone asks if we understand – even if we don't. This is especially true when we are feeling embarrassed or under pressure, which au pairs may feel during the beginning of their au pair year! So, after explaining a new concept to your au pair, it's not helpful to ask, "Do you understand?"
Instead, ask comprehension-checking questions. Let's say that you have finished explaining to your au pair what children can and can't have for snacks. "Can Sarah have almonds?", "What does Joshua eat before bed?" and "Which kids can have solid foods?" are all examples of comprehension-checking questions.
If your au pair responds correctly, then you know that you were understood. However, if she does not, it's clear that the concept needs to be explained once again. Try showing her, writing the lists out, or both. Some au pairs may benefit more from a demonstration or written list than verbal instruction!
Speak slowly and clearly and avoid idioms.
We have a tendency to "swallow" some of our letters, especially Ts and Gs. For example, most Americans pronounce the word "bottle" like "bod-el." If your au pair doesn't understand something you say, try pronouncing all of the letters as clearly as possible.
Au pairs may also be slow to pick up on figures of speech. For example, if you tell your au pair she's been "on the ball" lately, she might not know how to take that!
Don't just speak louder! This can be insulting to the au pair, and it's not helpful for understanding.
Repeat main points in multiple ways
If your au pair does not understand what was said, phrase what you already said in a new way. For example, you might ask "Do you need directions to school?" If this does not elicit the response you are looking for, ask "Do you know how to get to the kids' school?"
You may be making a concept more complex than it needs to be! Don't expect your au pair to be able to catch a nuanced hint, especially when she's new. As Americans, we often don't like to be direct with criticism. However, if your au pair is not picking up on hints or suggestions, you may need to respectfully yet bluntly tell her, "Please turn off all the lights when you exit a room."
Give it time!
As the year goes on, your au pair will get to know your family's needs, personalities and communication styles better. Simultaneously, her English will improve. This is all good for communication!
We hope you find these tips helpful! What other ideas do you have about communicating with your au pair? Please share!