Helping Au Pairs Improve Their English

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Learning English at school in a foreign country does not always prepare an au pair for full immersion into the United States, where they will be forced to comprehend and speak in English most of their day time (and night time) hours.

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

The first step is 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 City and Town Adult Continuing Education Classes

Many towns and cities offer free ESL classes through their public school adult continuing education program. Most of the classes are free or require only a nominal fee. Westport, Fairfield, Norwalk, Wilton, Stamford, Greenwich and Ridgefield all have continuing education programs. 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 college classes.

Read, Read, Read!

Whether it is People magazine, a children’s fairytale, or a NY Times Best Seller, reading anything at all will help reinforce the English language and introduce au pairs to new words and help comprehension. I recommend that au pairs keep a dictionary nearby to look up words that they don’t recognize and write them down in a reading journal to help remember the meaning. Au pairs, be sure to ask host families or local coordinators if you are unsure how to pronounce a word. Host families, help your au pair apply for a libary card at the local libary 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 Television

While we want our children to stop watching television, I suggest that au pairs watch television to learn American slang and strengthen their knowledge of the English language during their time off. Watching television with closed captions or movies with subtitles may be particularly helpful.

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

Listen to the Radio and Other Music

Listening to the news and other talk shows on the radio will help reinforce the English language and increase comprehension. Also, listening to music is very helpful since there is a lot of repetition in most songs.  Printing out the lyrics to favorite songs and reading along while listening to the music is also an effective method to improving vocabulary and comprehension.

Talk and Engage in Conversation

In the beginnng, 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 forced 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 familes, host children, local coordinators, friends and other au pairs (in English only!).

Free Online Resources:

  • ESL Flow: This website is full of free online ESL resources. It looks a little rough, but clicking through will bring you to everything from 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. In my experience, once au pairs are able to understand our language, it is easier for them to communicate, which is the key to success.

Christine Meek

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

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