I live in New Zealand where I am attempting to pass on French to my two children as a non-native speaker. The children are 3.5 and 1.5 years. At this stage there is some passive understanding of the language only. I would like to hire a live-in language companion/au pair. While the au pair type duties will be valuable, the primary reason for hiring this person is to encourage the children’s French. My question is how to structure the language arrangements, in particular given my husband does not speak French. For example, the au pair only speaks to the children and me in a French, but she speaks to my husband in English, OR French all day until 6 pm (when husband gets home) then we all switch to English – there are various possibilities. I want to strike the right balance and would love your ideas and thoughts.

Thank you, Raewyn


Dear Raewyn,

Thank you very much for asking this question. I’m glad you want your children to grow up bilingual and that you’ve found a way to provide them regular input in French from a native speaker.

You’re asking about a language arrangement with the au pair. Usually, au pairs come to a country to learn the local language, therefore I suppose that she would probably be glad also to learn some English from you. Talking English in the evenings may meet her and your expectations. But at this point, I think that it’s more important to know what your expectations are for your children and yourself.

You suggest that the au pair would talk to you and your children in French during the day. I imagine that you’re looking forward to improving your French alongside your children then?

There are many aspects to consider. I suggest that I ask you some questions and then we can work together on a language plan. What is your goal in teaching French to your children? Do you want them to be good in communicating in French or do you have a specific literacy goal? You talk the language already and like it, right? This is already a great start. Do you have family or friends, or do your children have peers who talk French?

If you adopt the one-person-one-language (OPOL) method, i.e. that the au pair talks French to your children and you talk English to them, you’d need to decide which language you’ll talk to her and, more important, in which language you will interact with your children. If you choose to talk French during the day, this means that you’ll interact with your children in French too. Will you feel comfortable with this? And what do you do when the au pair leaves the room or is not at home? Will you then switch to English?

You suggest that you could all switch to English when your husband is home. With this switch it will be very clear for your children that “papa doesn’t talk French” (he may learn a bit French alongside your children though).

You don’t mention if your family lives nearby. Have you considered the situation when they visit? If you choose to talk French with your children, will you then talk English with them? – Or will you switch to English depending on the language your guests and family talk?

As you see, the language arrangement with the au pair depends a lot from how you want to structure the languages within your family for the next year(s). You will probably want to provide regular input in French for your children and this requires an agreement not only with the au pair, but with your husband, your family and your friends too.

I hope I didn’t scare you too much with all those questions, but I guess that a good plan, short term and/or long term, would be advisable. Please let me know what you think and I’ll be very glad to help you take the next steps.

With very kind regards,