There’s no question that French is one of the most beautiful languages in the world. It’s melodic, passionate, and filled with unique sounds and interesting dynamics. Quite easy to learn, if you’re an English speaker, ⅓ of English words come from the French language. It’s also fun trying to figure out the differences between phrases which sound exactly the same yet mean totally different things (such as ‘Je dis/I say’ and ‘Jeudi/Thursday’). I loved learning French at school and was super excited to continue learning it as an au pair, but I wish I was more prepared for the reality of a ‘language barrier’. A ‘language barrier’ is like an invisible wall between you and your host family (or whoever you’re speaking to), stopping you from communicating as effectively as you’d like to. They can be created through misunderstandings, lack of knowledge or simply lack of confidence to speak. Here are some points to consider about learning and speaking French (or any language) before you step into au pair life, which will hopefully help you feel more at ease with overcoming language barriers.
Have a foundation
Of course, there are some host families who will require you to speak your native language in their home because they will want to learn it, but even if this is the case, out of politeness it’s recommended you have a fairly good foundation of French (or your host country’s native language). Greetings, basic questions/answers, and simple descriptions will help you get to know your host family and show them that you are prepared to learn. If you haven’t learned it at school, take advantage of YouTube videos and language apps to help you get started. You’ll have enough new routines and customs to get used to without having the added trickiness of not understanding anything!
Don’t be scared of the things you don’t know (and be okay with asking for help!)
When I first arrived in France, it didn’t take long to realise the differences between ‘everyday French’ and the French I’d learned in school. Don’t get me wrong, my teacher had been amazing, she was passionate and determined for her students to speak confidently, but in a school environment with students who learned at different paces, it was hard to teach us the speed of natural conversation, introduce us to slang words, and tell us about the French tendencies to speak in half-sentences and ‘huff’ in replacement of particular words (which can be very confusing if you’re not familiar with it!). Initially, I’d felt a bit frustrated that I hadn’t had much exposure to these things at school, but quickly realised that the only real way to learn them was through immersion.
On my second day in France, I learned a new way to ask ‘How are you?’. Never had I been taught the phrase ‘T’es en pleine forme?’ before, and to be honest, it freaked me out when I needed my host dad to translate it because I started to wonder how I would cope with future phrases I’d never heard of. As time went by, I knew that I needed to change my mindset and be okay with ending up in situations where someone else would need to translate for me, or where I’d need to ask for further explanation. This leads me on to my next point …
Be aware of mental blocks
As children, we are always told to think before we speak, but as an au pair, you need to do this anyway because you spend a lot of time figuring out the best way to communicate. It can be super helpful, but at the same time, when we delay our responses there will undoubtedly be moments where we miss opportunities to respond to our host children or express ourselves correctly because, by the time we’ve formulated a response in our heads, the moment will have passed. This can become quite frustrating and lead to further issues if we don’t make sure everyone is on the same page. So, some advice I’d give is to start your au pair journey without putting pressure on yourself to respond to everything straight away, because it won’t help you and you’ll start to feel like you’re ‘failing’ when you’re actually just learning. Try to be aware of the situations that trip you up, because paying attention to the areas you need to improve will help build up your confidence much quicker.
A summary of tips
• Make sure you are comfortable with basic greetings, common expressions, questions and answers (and it helps to know how to ask people to ‘slow down’ or ‘repeat’).
• Take it one day at a time and remind yourself that you’re learning, because it makes the process of understanding and responding a lot less scary.
• Tell your host siblings about your language level, and get them involved when you feel lost. You’d be surprised how excited children get when they are given a sense of responsibility to help teach someone else.
• Be honest! If you’re struggling with the disciplinary language, or find it hard to express yourself, let your host parents know and ask them to give you some guidance.
There’s no doubt that the first few weeks will be a little bit daunting and you’ll probably feel quite shy – even if you’re usually very confident! You’ll learn all sorts of things about yourself and your habits, and it will take some time to get used to operating in your new home. Just remember that the only way to learn is through practice, and once you find your feet and learn about your new role, you’ll be opening up, taking risks and learning more than you’ve ever learned before. Be excited about making mistakes, reaching new goals, and becoming more fluent in another language, because there are so many people in the world who wish they could be doing the same thing!
Children need adults to communicate with them because it gives them a safety net and lets them know they are cared for. Be brave and tell your host family that you will need their help and patience if you don’t feel completely prepared. Get enrolled in a language school if you think you need additional teaching, and chat with other au pairs and ask them how they cope when they don’t understand something. At the end of the day, you’re all on a journey and need to support each other. If you can ‘face the fear and do it anyway’ you’ll find so many rewards and grow in incredible ways.