Communicating With a Non-Native English Speaker

Communication with your au pair will become natural as your year goes on.
Communication with your au pair will become natural as your year goes on.
Image courtesy of InterExchange

The majority 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, one of their most common goals is to improve their English. While all of our au pairs speak conversational English, levels of fluency vary.

Accurate communication may feel forced, especially as your new au pair adjusts to the American accent and to your home, family, and community, all at the same time.

Your au pair’s comprehension will improve over the course of the year, but we put together a few tips to get you off to a great start.

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 your 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 he or she does not, it’s clear that the concept needs to be explained once again. Try showing them, writing out lists, using pictures on your phone, or all three. Some au pairs may benefit more from a visual 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.

Oftentimes, textbooks and language courses teach a more formal version of English than what is spoken colloquially. Consequently, au pairs may be slow to pick up on figures of speech or slang. For example, if you tell your au pair she’s been “on the ball” lately, she might not know how to take that! Explain what the phrase means to your au pair- you can look it up and learn the origin of common sayings together.

Finally, if your au pair is having trouble understanding you, don’t just speak louder. This can be insulting to your au pair, and it’s not helpful for comprehension. Instead, slow down and enunciate.

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. This is one of the most effective tactics to communicate with a non-native English speaker. 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?”

Over time, speaking in a way that your au pair easily understands will become natural to you.

Simplify your message.

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 he or she is 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 them, “Please turn off all the lights when you exit a room.”

The reverse is also true. You may notice your au pair seems blunt or doesn’t sugar coat things. This is often driven by language, not a personality trait.

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, as will your communication with one another.

Joy Lo

Joy is a huge advocate for cultural exchange. She's lived across the U.S. and various countries around the world including the UK, Australia and Indonesia. She has a unique perspective on working and thriving in other cultures. She's been a contributing author on Au Pair USA program.