PRO Tip: The Realities of Cross-Cultural Communication with your Professional Au Pair

January 10, 2017
For some American families, particularly those that are monolingual, hiring an au pair might seem daunting. All au pairs are foreign nationals, which means they will speak English as a second (or sometimes third) language. If you don’t speak another language, or if you’ve never communicated regularly with someone who isn’t a native English speaker, you might wonder if you’ll be able to understand your au pair and vice versa.

For an au pair to participate in the U.S. Department of State’s J1 au pair program, such as the program offered by PROaupair, she or he must be proficient in English. While levels of fluency will vary from au pair to au pair, you can be sure that you will be able to communicate with your au pair. 

It is also important to remember that cross-cultural communication is more than just language or individual words. Various studies indicate that non-verbal communication accounts for anywhere from 60-90% of all communication. So, even if your au pair gets confused with a particular word or phrase, her non-verbal gestures will go a long way in communicating her intent.

Some miscommunication is normal – and can be rather funny. Claudia, a PROaupair host mom, shared this comment: “Sometimes, Germans have problems saying V versus W, since that is reversed in the German language. So, our professional au pair would say, “I like wedgies” when she meant, “I like veggies.”

The same word can be used in different contexts, depending upon the culture. For example, in Germany, when someone says a particular food is “ok” – it means he or she likes it. When an American says a food is “ok” – it means he or she doesn’t like it.

Some tips for minimizing miscommunications include asking your professional au pair to repeat instructions (to ensure understanding), speaking a little slower than you usually do, avoiding slang, or writing down instructions in addition to verbally delivering them (so your au pair can review later and confirm understanding).

After an initial transition period, you’ll find that one of the most wonderful aspects of welcoming an au pair into your family is the exposure to another country and culture. Perhaps your au pair will share some of her native dishes or teach your children songs that she learned as a child. For older children, and parents too, au pairs can help bring current events into focus or inspire interest in geography or foreign languages. Some families ask their au pairs to speak to their children only in their native tongue, providing their children with unique exposure to a second language.

Anticipating miscommunications and proactively addressing them will help to smooth the way for future communications. In the end, communication won’t hinge on your au pair’s vocabulary but on both parties willingness to ask questions, get clarification and keep lines of communication open.