Magazine topic: 
Life around the world

So you want to improve your speaking skills?

by : 
Sophie Newnham

Reading and writing in a different language is all very well and good, but how do you really master a foreign tongue? You need to immerse yourself in a country where that language is spoken; give yourself no other choice but to communicate in your second or maybe third language.

As English learners, you guys have such a wide choice of destinations. The United Kingdom, America, Australia, New Zealand... there is a whole adventure waiting for you somewhere, out there in the big wide world! However, travelling somewhere as far away as American can be expensive, so how can you get round the costs?

I’m a French student myself and I decided that the best (and cheapest) way to immerse myself in the French culture and language was to live with a family. Sharing the life, language and traditions of a real French family seemed the most effective way to increase my confidence in my speaking skills and so in July 2010, off I went to au pair for a family!

Now, au pairing will not be for everyone; I certainly did not think it would be for me! When I arrived at the ferry port at 8am after a sleepless night and saw this blonde, smiling family of four, I soon relaxed as they made me feel so welcome. In terms of the language, I was thrown straight into speaking French the minute I arrived, so that was a bit of a shock. However the parents spoke slowly for me and when I didn’t understand what the children were saying (they spoke VERY quickly!) the parents would always help me.

So what were my duties as an au pair? I had to wake the children up in the morning, give them breakfast, do their homework with them, give them an English lesson, make them lunch, take them out in the afternoon...so every day was full of activities – you never have a dull moment when you are an au pair! You must remember too, that all this is done whilst speaking in a language which was not my mother tongue! So it certainly was a challenge.

Of course, there were stressful moments when the children were naughty or when I felt like I could not express myself correctly. Yet after four weeks, my confidence grew and grew; and by the end of my stay with the family, I was attending dinner parties with family friends and having conversations with everyone there.

I would advise anyone to try au pairing as a way to improve your language skills. Even if you are not sure that working with kids is something that you want to do in the future (like me), you may surprise yourself. For example, I’m now applying to become a French teacher! It truly is an experience that will change your beliefs of a culture, a language and even of yourself.

Discussion

Do you think that working as an au pair is a good way to learn a language? Would you like to be an au pair? Why or why not?