Caregivers help expand childrens language skills

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jan 28 16:38:18 UTC 2007

Caregivers help expand childrens language skills

Au pairs, nannies teach their native tongues, traditions to young charges

By SUMMER HARLOW, The News Journal Posted Thursday, January 25, 2007 at
9:01 pm

 Que lindas manitas, Marlenis Arrocha sang in Spanish.

What pretty little hands.

Six-month-old Giselle Miranda waved her hands in response.

See? Arrocha said. She understands.

Giselle cant yet walk or talk, but already her parents are taking steps to
ensure their baby grows up bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English
fluently. In September, Julio and Katie Miranda, who live in Brandywine
Hundred, hired Arrocha, an au pair from central Panama, with the
stipulation that Arrocha speak only Spanish to Giselle. In an
ever-more-globalized world and multiethnic country more than one in 10
U.S. household residents speak Spanish at home an increasing number of
families like the Mirandas are hiring au pairs and nannies who can teach
their children a second language and familiarize them with a different

The world is getting smaller, and people are realizing the importance of
teaching children more about the world early and making them more
competitive, said Susan Robinson, vice president of Cultural Care Au Pair,
a Massachusetts-based agency that places au pairs with U.S. families. Were
moving toward a bilingual country, and families want to expose their
children to other cultures and languages at an early age. Between 2002 to
2005, Cultural Care Au Pair, the company the Mirandas used to find
Arrocha, saw more than a 150 percent increase in its placement of
Spanish-speaking au pairs. San Francisco-based AuPairCare increased the
number of its client families with Spanish-speaking au pairs by more than
122 percent between 2003 and 2006.

And its not just Spanish speakers who are in demand research shows babies
and toddlers minds are especially hardwired for language acquisition. And
more families are seeking bilingual au pairs, who come from abroad and
live with U.S. families, and nannies, or domestic caregivers, to teach
their children German, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish and other languages.
At American Domestic Agency, which places nannies in New Castle County and
southern Pennsylvania, about 1 in 15 families request bilingual nannies.
They want their children to be exposed to a second language, said Melissa
McIntire, owner of American Domestic. Its high on their list of
priorities, because if theyre paying for a nanny, theyd like to have that
cultural experience for their children.

Making a connection

The Mirandas sought out a Panamanian au pair because Julio Miranda, a
sales account executive, is from Boquete in northern Panama. Arrocha
provides that cultural connection, the Mirandas said. For example, if
Arrocha cooks a meal she can make the dishes that remind Julio Miranda of
his home country like plantains and a sweet pineapple-rice drink the
family had for dinner last week. Shes introducing these cultural things
into our house that bring that side of Giselles heritage into the family,
Katie Miranda said. Of course, well celebrate St. Patricks Day, too,
because shes also Irish. We want to recognize both sides of the family.

In the Rodi household in Brandywine Hundred, au pair Julia Helfenbein has
used a German matching-and-memory game to teach the Rodi sisters Erica, 7,
and Allison, 4 various words and phrases in German. While the Rodis didnt
set out for their girls to speak German, the language exposure has been an
added bonus, said Andrea Rodi, a health care consultant. Allison actually
speaks German better than English, Rodi said. I guess she was meant to be
born in Germany, because it just rolls off her tongue. While Arrocha
speaks only Spanish to Giselle, Katie Miranda speaks only English to her.
Julio Miranda speaks a mix of the two languages.

Hi, linda, he cooed at her as she fussed in her play chair. Hi, pretty.

Early language skills

Giselle may be only 6 months old, but already shes showing signs of
comprehension, her parents say. When her parents or Arrocha ask for a
besito, or little kiss, Giselle knows what that means, they said. Children
learn to understand a language long before they can actually speak it,
said Franois Thibaut, founder and director of the Language Workshop for
Children, which offers language classes around the Northeast for children
as young as six months. Thibaut also created Professor Toto, an
award-winning, at-home foreign-language curriculum for families. The
younger a child is, the more malleable the brain, he said.

To an American newborn, learning Chinese is no different than leaning
English, but by age three, you cant say that anymore, Thibaut said. By
nine months, babies can already discriminate between sounds they have
heard since birth and sounds that are new. Ali Alalou, assistant professor
of language education at the University of Delaware, said it is a myth
that children become confused if they are exposed to more than one
language at once. Everyone is born with the possibility of learning any
language, and the more you advance into your own language, the more you
restrict the sounds you can make and the possibilities for learning a
second language, he said.

Knowing how hard it is for her to pick up Spanish as an adult, Katie
Miranda said, she doesnt want to delay Giselles exposure so that her
daughter will be able to communicate with her Panamanian grandparents and
have a leg up in the business world someday. Obviously, English is
important, Miranda said. But you open yourself up to so many options if
youre bilingual. Youll only make yourself more valuable, more marketable.


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