Don’t get lost in translation
So you’ve found the right host family, you’ve bought your ticket and packed your bags, but wait…something’s missing…you don’t know the language of the country you’re moving to. Not speaking the language of your new home may seem like the biggest obstacle to living out your post-grad dreams in a great foreign city, and in many ways it will be. But, the language barrier shouldn’t stop you from travelling abroad, and there are many ways to make your new situation work for you. I moved to Paris five months ago and the only French class I’d ever taken was one day of French 101 in college (dropped, immediately). The good news is, with a supportive family and a little effort you can transition in no time at all. Here are my top tips for living as an au pair with no language experience.
Communing with the Locals
Here’s the easy part: many people in Paris speak English quite well, especially the younger generations. So fear not, you won’t be forever lost in the labyrinth of metro tunnels or charming streets of the city until the sun goes down. That said, it always helps to try a little French before reverting to English when speaking to someone. A little effort goes a long way and beats forcing everyone into an English conversation with you. Practice with Duolingo before you get here, learn the basics, like directions, your please-and-thank-yous, basic verbs and nouns. Lucky for us English-speakers, a huge amount of our vocabulary is derived from…you guessed it, French.
It sounds a bit childish, and it is, but take notes from the children you work with. Sometimes the missing piece of a conversation can be found by gesturing wildly, drawing a picture, and acting out what you mean to say. Google translate is handy, but you don’t want to be the millennial whipping out your phone every time there’s a problem. I can’t count how many times the five-year-old I care for has begun crying because she just can’t find her…. blank. I can’t help her look for this essential object because I don’t know what she’s saying. So I ask her: what color is it? What does it do? How big is it? And so on until the guessing game produces an answer.
Back to Classes
Anyone relishing the joys of the visa process knows: you need a pre-inscription for French classes to get that all-important OK from the French government. That said, classes are not required to work here. However, signing up and regularly attending (yeah, I said it), can get you miles ahead on your language acquisition. I found a school in the 19eme where I could sign up for blocks of time tailored to my work schedule. I chose two hour classes four days a week, for the duration of four weeks. Signing up in chunks rather than semesters gives you the chance to travel or take a little break. The periodical French vacation periods are a heavenly change from the long slog of American work schedules, so take advantage! Dip your toes in the Mediterranean, visit Deauville (the French version of New York’s Hamptons), fill your beach bag with baguettes and recline somewhere sandy with a Camus novel. Study French, but also relax and absorb it.
Feel at Home
While Paris is still a Western city, a fraternal twin to culture back home, it can be comforting to hear your own language. Lucky for us Anglophones the city of light loves its Irish bars and has a slew of English-speaking hotspots where you can drop the charades and be perfectly understood. Leaf through the pages of a second-hand book at Shakespeare and Company, Hemingway’s old spot, where you’ll find all the English titles you need and strike up conversations with other English-speakers. Stop by Sundays at 4 pm for weekly readings as well as free tea and cookies.
By Savannah Gerlach