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Learn English as an au pair in Britain

Learn English as an au pair in Britain

On the Home Office website ‘working in the UK’ there is a paragraph about the au pair scheme, explaining that the scheme allows a person between 17 and 27 to come to the United Kingdom to study English.

For most au pairs, improving their English language skills is still the most important motivator for choosing the au pair program to come to Britain. Although for EU nationals it is now easy to enter the UK and do other work, nothing quite hits the spot like the au pair programme does to provide the opportunity to earn and learn.

And equally, we find that the au pair experience is often more successful for the families if the au pair is serious about learning English in structured classes in addition to the informal language practise at home. An au pair who attends structured tuition improves much faster, is committed to stay for a longer period of time and generally more serious about the au pair experience as a cultural exchange opportunity.

Firstly, let’s look at the structured English languages classes. In some cases, these have been provided free of charge the last couple of years. With government funding of Skills for Life courses, some au pairs did not have to pay for their English courses. Some feedback we received however was that for educated and ambitious au pairs, these courses were not always challenging enough.

English UK is the national association of accredited English language centres. For students, enrolling at an English UK centre is the best way to ensure that they have a good experience and get the most out of the English language course.

The UK has the widest range of English Language and Combined Courses in the world (*) - there is a course for everyone. Depending on the level of English that the au pair has when he or she first arrives in Britain and the purpose of leaning English, they may choose from various options.

General and Intensive English - English for daily life in an English-speaking country. Class sizes vary and a full-time course will usually be for a minimum of 15 full hours per week. Courses ensure you improve your English in all areas of the language: reading, writing, listening and, of course, speaking. This is the most usual choice for au pairs.

Other options include English for Academic Purposes (EAP), Foundation courses, in preparation for college or university, English for Specific Purposes and Business English.

Whatever your choice of language course, this is also a great way to meet new people and make friends. At the languages centers, people from all nationalities come together to learn, so you have something in common with everyone and it make it easy to connect.  You can practice your language skills in social situations, chat during your breaks and agree to meet up when you have time off.

Just because the au pair program is about cultural childcare, this does not mean that the au pair has a background or a future in childcare. Au pairs are often university graduates who have ambitious plans for the future and recognise the au pair program as an effective and efficient way to study English in Britain for a year.

The time with the family can be considered as ‘work experience’ and language practice all rolled into one. Practicing your improving language skills with young children has huge advantages. Children are usually more patient and forgiving, they can correct your errors without making you feel embarrassed or awkward. And their own choice of words and sentences is often simpler than that of adults. Depending on the child’s age, you can learn from each other; read together, play word games, be each other’s thesaurus and have fun whilst learning.

And the parents have a role to play too. In the first couple of weeks, the parents need to ensure that the au pair is ‘trained’ into the routine of the household. This is often done with a handbook or training manual, which both parents and au pair can use for reference. It is in the parents interest to engage the au pair in conversation from an early stage. The au pair will spend a lot of time with their children and feedback on their activities will be a good opportunity for the au pair to speak with the adults of the family. 

To encourage the development of written English, an au pair can keep a diary or journal or possibly even a blog in English to share with friends back home.  This will make a nice souvenir too.

And so, gradually, with structured language classes and informal communications with the children and the adults at home, the language skills of the au pair will improve fast.

Most new host families comment on the astonishing improvements of the language skills of their au pair in the first two weeks. After the initial couple of weeks, it is more often the outsiders, like friends of the family, who notice the improvements. With a longer gap between communications the differences are more noticeable than to the family who interact with their au pair on a daily basis.

Some of our host families also ask us about an au pair who speaks French for example to help improve the French language skills of the family. Although asking the au pair to teach some of her/his own language to the family may be an additional benefit, the benefits of the interactions above are possibly less obvious, yet very real. It will help the children to improve their own English language skills through using different words to help the au pair understand but it also prepares them for a time in the future when the children may be learning a foreign language themselves. It may motivate them to want to learn an additional language and even give them the desire to become au pair themselves one day to improve their language skills in the same way.

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