Au Pair in America recently hosted a national conference for the field of community counselors along with many partners and agents from around the globe.  At the opening ceremonies, Caroline, a former au pair from Costa Rica told us that it had taken her 6 months before she was fully comfortable with English.  This was the perfect introduction to a workshop the following day.

Counselors and agents participated in a language simulation called Redundancia.  Participants were given the opportunity to learn and communicate in a new language as a speaker and a listener, hence having a glimpse of one of the many stumbling blocks for au pairs and their host families.  We know that the ability to communicate effectively across cultures is critical for a successful relationship, but how many of us know that au pairs often feel isolated, inadequate, stressed and frustrated due to their limited experience with English.

Did you know that ‘culture shock’ is also called ‘culture fatique?’ “I’m tired of living in a strange country, tired of watching behavior I don’t understand, tired of eating strange foods, and very tired of having to speak and understand a strange language.” It’s exhausting.  Communication is so much more than the words we use; it includes body language, gestures, facial expression, intonation and stress patterns.  All these aspects contribute to meaning and reflect personality, enthusiasm, knowledge.  If an au pair is focused on vocabulary and grammar, she may lose her train of thought and fail to connect with the listener.  She may appear uncomfortable, unsure and uninformed.  She will fail to communicate with “flair!”

It’s important that we encourage our host families not to jump to any conclusions regarding ability, love of children or commitment to the job. Remind them that we won’t see the “real” au pair until she’s less stressed about her ability to communicate effectively in English.   What can we do to help? How can we assist the au pair in her efforts to communicate in English? That’s a question for another post but in the meantime, participate in a language simulation, experience what it’s like to have communication efforts thwarted for 3 minutes and then realize that it was 3 minutes of frustration for you; it’s 24 hours/day for our newly arrived au pairs.