Helping Au Pairs Improve Their English

This post was originally published in January 2013 and revised in May 2024 by other contributors

Learning English at school in another country does not always prepare an au pair for full immersion into the United States, where they will need  to comprehend and speak in English 24/7.

Nervous host families and au pairs, rest assured, there are a number of measures that can be taken to help au pairs improve their English rapidly.

ESL Classes at Community Colleges

For structured classroom learning and to fulfill your au pair’s educational requirement, they may opt to sign up for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at your local community college (must be an accredited college or university.)  Au pairs will be required to take a placement exam and will then be assigned to a class that is appropriate for their level. Au pairs may use the money from their education stipend provided by their host families to pay for these classes. Most classes meet once a week for a few hours for an entire semester. This will satisfy approximately half of their educational requirement (about 30 hours or 3 credits.)  Many classes have a language lab component in which au pairs will listen to words through headphones and then repeat the words and record them to see how they sound.

Free ESL Class Through Local Adult Continuing Education Classes

Many towns and cities offer free ESL classes through their public school adult continuing education programs. Most of the classes are free or require only a nominal fee. Unfortunately, these classes will not count towards an au pair’s education requirement since they are not through an accredited university. However, they are definitely worth taking in addition to or in lieu of college classes for au pairs who want to improve their English.

Read, Read, Read!

Whether it is People magazine, a children’s fairytale, or a New York Times Bestseller, reading anything at all will help reinforce the English language and introduce au pairs to new words and help comprehension. Au pairs should also download a translation app or dictionary app to look up words that they don’t recognize and write them down in a reading journal to help remember the meaning. Encourage your au pair to ask you or their Local Coordinator if they are unsure how to pronounce a word. As a host family, help your au pair apply for a library card at the local library and encourage them to start reading! This is also a great outing for au pairs to do with the children. In addition, au pairs can take younger children to story hour at the library, which is a win-win for all involved!

Watch TV

While most parents want their children to stop watching TV, it’s actually a good idea for au pairs to watch TV in English to learn American slang and strengthen their knowledge of the English language during their time off. Watching TV with closed captions or movies with subtitles may be particularly helpful.

Also, if the host children are allowed to watch TV while the au pair is working, au pairs can watch with them. Many children’s shows (such as Sesame Street) contain characters that speak slower and enunciate the words, which makes it easier to absorb what is being said.

Listen to Music, Podcasts, or Audiobooks

Listening to songs, podcasts or audiobooks in English will help reinforce the language and increase comprehension. Also, listening to music is very helpful since there is a lot of repetition in most songs.  Reading the lyrics to favorite songs while listening to the music is also an effective method to improve vocabulary and comprehension.

Talk and Engage in Conversation

In the beginning, most au pairs are translating what is being said to them in English into their own language in their mind and then translating their response the same way. However, the more au pairs are required to speak English, the more they will begin to think in English, which will assist in fluency. Whenever possible, au pairs should be engaged in conversation with host families, host children, Local Coordinators, friends and other au pairs (in English only). These conversations will speed up the process of thinking in English versus relying on translations to communicate.

Free Online Resources:

  • ESL Flow: This website is full of free online ESL resources. You can access grammar worksheets, pronunciation tips, TOEFL practice exams, online quizzes, and much much more!
  • BBC: The BBC has an excellent online English language site. It has videos, interactive tools, vocabulary lessons, articles with comprehension questions, and listening exercises. The content is updated regularly and would be a great daily activity!
  • Dave’s ESL Cafe: Dave’s is essentially a tool for ESL teachers, but has a very extensive list of grammar resources to brush up on the basics. If an au pair would like to read up on grammar, study idioms or take quizzes, this is an excellent resource.

Any or all of these suggestions will help support an au pair’s understanding of the English language. Once au pairs are able to understand English more easily, it is easier for them to communicate, which is the key to success in any au pair and host family relationship.

Christine Meek

Christine is the InterExchange Au Pair USA Local Coordinator for Fairfield County, CT.