Embarking on an adventure as an au pair in a foreign country is definitely a life-changing experience, as well as an opportunity to immerse yourself in a new culture, make lifelong connections and gain really valuable life skills. However, along with the excitement and the infinite positive aspects of being an au pair, also comes a very common challenge: the language barrier.
Unless you choose the "easy way" and join a host family that speaks your own language or one you’re already fluent in, it is natural that you’re going to have some initial difficulties in understanding and communicating with people the way you’d like to. And I know from experience that this is incredibly frustrating and annoying to deal with.
In this blog post I therefore would like to dive into the different aspects of facing a language barrier and, of course, give you some tips to overcome it in the most successful and comfortable way possible.
Let’s start by talking about the struggles someone facing a language barrier normally has to deal with:
- Communication issues: Very basic communication, like simply going to the bakery to buy some bread, might end up being a hard mission, the same as going to the supermarket or any other situation that involves contact with people or even the need to understand what a sign or other written text says.
- Work-related difficulties: Understanding your host family's expectations and effectively caring for their children can be challenging without a common language. Safety and childcare require clear communication and this can be a significant hurdle. Especially for safety reasons, I therefore recommend you make sure that you can somehow effectively communicate with your host family, at least in one language.
- Loneliness and isolation: I don’t want to scare you with this, but it’s important to be aware that not being fully able to communicate with people can sometimes make you feel lonely and isolated, especially during the initial weeks of an au pair stay. Trying to connect with locals, spend time together and make new friends is definitely a big help to improve the situation.
A way forward
But don’t despair! There are many easy and effective strategies to overcome a language barrier. Once you implement them, you’ll see yourself how much everything’s going to change!
- Take part in a language course: I’ve always found language courses super useful, as they provide you with a more-in-depth knowledge and, therefore, build up your confidence. You will be amazed to see how much you can improve just by attending language classes, they really are a game-changer! And yes, I know that sometimes language courses in private schools might be slightly expensive, but normally there are also public entities offering them for a bit cheaper. Also, depending on what country you are being an au pair in, the host family might be required to help you paying for it; so I’d say, take the chance! I’m sure you won’t regret it! It's also often a great way to meet new people.
- Online resources: Nowadays you have infinite possibilities to learn a new language online through language learning apps, websites, podcasts and much more. Also, what helped me a whole lot was music; you probably won’t believe me if I tell you this, but I learned a huge part of the German language just by listening to German songs on repeat. Just keep it playing in the background, also if you’re not fully focused trying to understand the lyrics, your brain will just be exposed to it and, as a consequence, will start familiarising with it. And yes, this does make a difference!
- Cultural immersion: Attending local events, visiting museums and engaging in activities that expose you to the language and local customs is another game changer. Go out, embrace outside stimuli and use them to improve, be curious and approach situations positively. This is another great way to meet new people and fill your days with special activities.
- Practice, practice, practice: Did I by chance mention „practice“? Ooh yes, I did. And this one deserves a bit of extra honesty: I know from experience how incredibly awkward it is trying to speak a language we barely know, a language we have absolutely no confidence in speaking and that might even sound awful to our ear. I know you probably won’t be confident enough to try speaking it, especially with people your age or older, that you might feel like people will judge you or make fun of you. I know this all very well, I’ve been there too. But let me tell you, for as tough as this can be, there will never be improvement without practice. So just throw yourself out there and, especially, use the chance you have to deal with children to feel more comfortable. Children literally don’t care if your pronunciation isn’t perfect, if you make grammar mistakes, if you don’t build a sentence correctly. As long as you play with them and care about them, they’ll be happy. And they might even be he ones „correcting“ you, helping you improve. You can set up many role games to help you practice, you can directly ask them what a certain thing is called or pronounced. And let me assure you, they’ll be very happy to help you, also because this will make them feel like they have „power“, they are somehow „useful“ and their knowledge and presence makes a difference out there. It’s definitely a win-win situation, that can also easily improve your relationship for the better.
- Patience and persistence: This one also hits hard, but you have to be aware that overcoming the language barrier takes time. Be patient with yourself and stay persistent in your efforts to learn and communicate. Don’t give up even when you feel like you can’t anymore (and prepare yourself, that’s surely going to happen). Instead, think about the incredible progress you’ve already done, how much better you are now compared to when you started your learning process. It will be an unimaginable satisfaction for you to look back and see the massive improvement you've achieved. And again, I’m telling you this from personal experience.
What you'll get
Wrapping this up, I feel like saying that becoming an au pair in a foreign country, while facing a language barrier, is definitely a challenging but incredibly rewarding journey. This experience will push you out of your comfort zone, boost your personal growth and let you create unforgettable memories.
With patience, perseverance and the right approach you can really turn the language barrier into an opportunity to learn, adapt and thrive in your new home away from home. Au pairing is not just about taking care of children, it's about embracing a new culture and becoming a part of a global community, one step and one word at a time.
About the author:
Silvia, 22, is originally from Italy but has been living abroad since going to the UK as an exchange student at the age of 16. After that she became an au pair in Germany for two years and now has become part of the AuPairWorld team, where she works as a Social Media Marketing Trainee. As a committed traveller, Silvia is happy to support travellers, young expats and people who would like to move abroad, with her travel-orientated Instagram account.