One way to learn English is to live with an American family and take care of its children as an au pair. I teach a lot of young women who do this. The results are usually quite good, especially in terms of listening and speaking. Unfortunately, some au pairs get matched with families that speak no English at all. This might still work if the au pair can learn English outside of the family. She has to take one English class anyway, but she also needs to spend a lot of time with friends speaking English. Unfortunately, some families have the au pair work far more than five days or forty hours a week. When that happens, she will have a hard time making friends and learning English.
Every au pair that I have taught has stories to tell about the parents and kids, because living with a family and raising kids forces au pairs to come to terms with American culture on a very basic level, starting with manners and food. Most can get annoyed, but they like it here, and many extend their stay from one year to two. Unfortunately, however, there are also families that make their au pair work six or seven days a week, and I have even heard of one that wanted to require its au pair to go to church, as if there were no such thing as freedom of conscience in this country.
The au pair agency is supposed to help au pairs who have been badly matched, but from the stories I hear, the results vary greatly by agency. Every horror story told me has come from someone working for Cultural Care. It seems its counselors have no incentives to make sure that the young women visiting this country have good working conditions. Little wonder, then, that their web page advertises “A flexible, affordable program!” (One possible translation: We can get you someone to work for you for $100 per week and we will not interfere if you make her work six or seven days a week.) By contrast, Au Pair in America has two major links on their modest homepage, “Become a Host Family” and “Become an Au Pair.” This setup reflects the reality I have heard from au pairs who came through this agency. The counselors work for both the parents and the au pairs. If there is a problem, a solution is worked out with both sides in mind.
I would like to be more specific, but I cannot without violating the privacy of students I have had. I just want to get the word out about the consistently bad stories I have heard about Cultural Care. I also want potential au pairs to think about what questions to ask before they sign a contract. Don’t just ask what the host family will expect of you. Find out how the au pair agency operates in this country. What incentives do its counselors have for looking after your best interests and not just those of the host family? How are disputes resolved? These questions matter, because unforeseen problems can easily arise. What if you unexpectedly encounter a family that doesn’t think you should go out at night during your free time? What if a host father thinks nothing of walking into your room when you’re not there and inspecting the contents of your fridge? Or what if no one in the host family eats together or talks, instead turning only to the TV or computer? What if the family lied to you about the working hours? These and many other issues can come up, and you need to have a way to resolve them. Make sure your agency will be on your side.