My Charges Don't Speak English!

Photo by Tim Regan via Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo by Tim Regan via Flickr Creative Commons.

by katie sullivan.

So you found the perfect job. You like the overview of your responsibilities and the family likes you. Everything seems great, but the one thing that concerns you ever so slightly is one tiny detail: the children don’t speak English. This is and was my experience, and these are my top three tips for dealing with a language barrier.

Sing It, Sister!

Singing songs is a brilliant way to express emotions and teach children new words. There are many songs that are the same in another language, such as "Lille Peter Edderkop," which is Danish for "Itsy Bitsy Spider." By finding a song that is easy to translate and keeps the same tune between the different versions, you can instantly teach your charges some English. Ask them to sing the song to you in their language. You can then repeat in English. Because the two songs have the same tune and vocal range, the children will be able to understand which part of the song you are singing.

There are many songs that have heavy influence on actions. Using songs such as "Wind the Bobbin Up" and "Wheels on the Bus" will give you a great opportunity to show off your drama skills and get the children to mimic your actions. By repeating your actions and saying the English word for the action, the child will be able to expand his or her vocabulary. This method enables you to teach the children new words without speaking their native tongue.

Counting songs can also be a saving grace. They are simple, repetitive, and easy to pick up on. It is easy for you as nanny to learn the foreign words for those numbers and slowly introduce the English words and numbers.

Play Games

“Show Me” is a game that is really as its sounds and can work well with young children who are still at the “show me stage” with their parents while learning their native language. When I started in my first foreign language job, the children would come to me talking their native language. Because I could not understand them, I would hold out my hand and say "show me." The idea behind this is the child takes your hand and takes you to what they want. Just be careful; there are some needs that are not easy for a child to express in this manner. For example, my charge showed me the chair. This can be complex to understand. The child actually wanted a biscuit, but knows they needed the chair to reach the biscuits. So some guesswork may be needed with this language game!

With this method there are branches you can take when the language becomes more developed. After the initial round, you can move onto basic sign language. I suggest reading up on Makaton, a learning process by which signs and symbols are used to convey meaning. This is a very easy method of sign language because it is heavily based on actions that describe the word. For example, the sign for swimming is miming the breaststroke with your arms. When using Makaton with my charges, we both say the word we mean in the child's native language and English. This way the child learns the English and you pick up some new words, too!

When the child's language has started to develop you can move onto to "I can see." I use this with my charges at meal times. I sit in my place, mime binoculars, and say "I can see the water!" By doing this, the children then begin to copy. Encourage the child to use English for the main word (the item they want) by repeating the English when they reach for the item.

Flash Cards

The most effective method of caring for charges who do not speak English is flash cards. Sit down with your charges and make drawings for common household items. I first asked the children to get their favourite things (toys, books, etc.). I then drew the outline the children colored in the picture. By spending this one-on-one time with the children and interacting through single words, you build up a strong connection and develop their language skills. After a few sessions of creating flash cards we had a card for most items in the house.

Putting flash cards into action does require the parents to use this method as well. I made special "card bags” for the children. We then separated the cards into individual bags that represented the rooms where the household items depicted on the cards are commonly stored. When we finished, we had a card bag for each room in the house. I encouraged my charges to get their card bags when we had a communication block. The child then says the word in their native language and I say the English. We then reverse the action so the child repeats the English.

Having flash cards throughout the house was also a great tool for reminding the children of their little jobs around the house. I would leave out cards for clothing in the children’s bedrooms in the morning so they would wake and see them. Soon I had the children getting themselves ready without any input from the parents or myself. This also works well for getting ready to leave the house. We made cartoon drawings of two children. We attached Velcro to the cards and the bodies we had made. That way, depending on the weather, I would put the appropriate outdoor clothing on the child’s drawing. When we left to go out, the children could see what they needed to wear to get themselves ready.

I was lucky enough in my first role that the children already had a good grasp on the English language, but the youngest could not speak but understood all I said. My newest job is with a seven-year-old, a two-year-old, and a newborn. Neither of the older children speak any English. Even when there is a complete lack of English, these methods still work. Like all childcare it is trial and error, some of these ideas will work with most children, however some children will not be able to understand English when working through these methods.