I recently did a language simulation for host families and community counselors.  Redundancia allows participants to experience communicating in a new language.  The exercise allowed us to view one of the challenges faced by our au pairs as they attempt to fit into a new culture.  Without fluency in a language, communication is severely hampered; personality is hidden, and the ability to communicate with “flair” is stifled.

Participants rotated the roles of  speaker, listen and observer,  and then discussed feelings, limitations and frustrations.  They were asked to use the new language for 3 minutes and reported a lack of confidence, loss of composure, felt “stupid” in their need to simplify the message. They experienced the loss of nuance; they were worried about not communicating their message accurately, they lost their train of thought and were exhausted…after 3 minutes! 

As the listener, they reported feeling impatient, awkward and though they wanted to be helpful, they often found themselves being judgmental and unable to “connect” with the speaker…and this was after listening for 3 minutes!!

We generalized the experience to that of our au pairs who must learn to communicate in English all day long. It wasn’t difficult to understand the au pairs’ feelings of isolation, frustration, and fear.  I reminded the audience that culture shock is often referred to as “culture fatique” much of which results from the exhaustion of having to attend and use another language for so many hours in a day. 

So, how can the host families best support their au pairs in their attempt to communicate in English?  Do not hurry the non-native speaker along with gestures or a look of impatience.  Do not interrupt.  Do not repeat the same words over and over.  Rephrase, using different words, ask questions that will elicit different word usage, tell the au pair not to worry about grammar but rather to speak freely just to communicate the idea-no one is judging grammar (or at least they shouldn’t be).  Often the written word will support the spoken and help with comprehension.  Encourage the au pair to read children’s books, watch movies, and feel free to ask for help!

And most important, do not judge the au pair’s competence, intelligence or personality while she’s learning a new language.  All are disguised until her knowlege expands.  One au pair told us that it was 6 months before she felt 100% comfortable using English! Another said, when her host family felt she knew “nothing about childcare,” “…but I don’t know any songs or stories in English; I know so many in Africaans!”  Food for thought….