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,

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold is a researcher, writer and an independent Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer at Ute’s International Lounge. She has a PhD in French literature and a Masters in Bilingualism and is a trained Speech and Language Specialist. Ute combines her knowledge in linguistics and intercultural communication, and her experience as multilingual and multicultural, who managed to successfully adapt to other languages and cultures, Ute made it her mission to translate research into evidence based, easy-to-apply tips for parents, families and practitioners, to use in everyday life. After Italy, France, and Switzerland she now lives in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband and three multilingual and multicultural children. Ute is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman, and understands Spanish and Portuguese.


  1. Raewyn

    Thank you for your response, Ute. So far the pattern has been that I speak in French to the children here and there when I think of it – no firm arrangement. Majority of the time is in English. Daily books and some TV in French. Whenever we have had French people staying with us ( which is fairly regular at the moment), I have encouraged them to speak in French to the children and in French to me, but there is inevitably a bit of English mixed in to aid the kids’ understanding. To be honest, French is sometimes/ often a source of frustration for my older boy and he resists. I wonder if part of this resistance is as a result of the to and fro between the languages that I use? I think if I were to decide on a time of day and only use French, I would find it hard to stick to that strictly. Maybe an OPOL approach with the au pair would therefore be better?
    My goal in teaching them French is for them to achieve the ability to converse and communicate in French. If that was achieved, I would look at taking it further, namely to participate in bilingual schooling which is available. In terms of my expectations for myself, yes I am always looking to improve my own language, but that is not the priority.
    There is support from our family for the extra language learning, so I think that whatever we decided in terms of language arrangements could be communicated to them and it would be supported.
    To be honest, I have never really thought about a ‘ language plan’ beyond using regular books and TV and me speaking in French to him, along with having regular French visitors. There is a pre-school my older child could attend one morning per week, but I have hesitated thinking it would be chucking him in the deepend based on his current abilities.
    Does that give you enough information to go from, Ute?
    Many thanks!

    • Ute Limacher-Riebold

      Dear Raewyn,
      Thank you for all these informations about how French is used in your family right now. I think it’s really important that you have the support from your family. It’s very helpful to know that your son is showing some resistance to talk French and I agree that one of the reasons can be the to and fro between English and French. You say your oldest boy resists: does this mean that he refuses to answer you in French, or does he get upset?
      He probably would benefit from a clearer structure, either a person related – like OPOL – or situational one – like you talk with him French consistently when alone with him. You say that you would find it hard to stick to French only and I think that this is the most important point to work on right now. If you want to talk both languages with your children, this should be done in a way that they understand the rules when which language is used.
      If you alternate weekly for example, they would know that in week A you’ll talk English and in week B French with them. Do you think they would like this kind of arrangement? You may try this out for a couple of weeks and see if they and you can be consistent. Don’t expect it to work 100% from the beginning, but you’ll have to find out if this is something you can live with or not. You can also decide that you talk French with them on certain occasions or during moments you’re alone with them, for example when you have lunch together or that hour or two before your husband comes home. I know that having a language plan seems very strict and not very natural, but dealing with more than one language at home needs a clear structure and as you’ll be the parent who will share more than one language with your children, having clear rules really helps a lot.
      It would also help a lot to have peers who talk French with your children. The greatest motivation in speaking another language is the need to talk it: If a child feels that this other language is just “nice to talk” but that he can get the message through also using another language (in your case English), he will choose the more economic solution, i.e. talk English. If he knows that the person he’s talking to doesn’t understand English or wouldn’t accept a sentence in English, he’d be more prone to talk French. This would obviously work better with someone who doesn’t speak English, like in situation of total immersion (in the country, France etc.). If we don’t have this chance to immerse our children into the language because we live abroad, we need to “create” a similar situation either with strict rules or by providing the input by mothertongue speakers (who would need to agree not to talk English).
      I think that the solution with a French au pair is great and I hope you can find one that will agree with your language plan.
      As plan I would suggest that you agree with the au pair to only speak French to your children during the day. You can then change to English all together in the evening or when your husband is home. The rules about language use need to be clear and applied consistently for the children, so that they will feel the need to use the language. As au pairs usually want to learn the local language, by speaking English with you as a whole family would probably provide her enough input to improve it during her stay; and she’ll probably take lessons or meet locals too. – I’d really like to hear what you’ll decide and how this all will work.
      Meanwhile I really wish you all “bonne chance” and “beaucoup de succès”. À très bientôt, Ute


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