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Until you feel reasonably comfortable in the language, you will not only find it difficult to meet the local people, but you will not enjoy simple tasks like shopping or answering the telephone. It is surprising how quickly you will acquire a certain facility if you have a basic grounding and if you have to survive in the language. Au pairs consistently report that when forced to speak daily in a foreign language, they learn more in a month than during years of study at school.
Au pairs are in fact less prone to complain that communication with their family is impossible than that their employers insist on speaking English, thereby preventing them from improving their own fluency in the local language. On the other hand, people who have no knowledge of foreign languages would be unwise to fix up a job with a non-English speaking family.
If you intend to go abroad and have never studied the language, you should consider enrolling before departure in a part-time or short intensive language course at a local college of further education or following a self-study programme with books and tapes. A great many teach-yourself courses are on the market though they are expensive and you might prefer to make use of a local library.
Perhaps a more enjoyable way of learning a language before being thrust into a monolingual domestic situation is to speak it with some natives. No matter what your level of proficiency, a good dictionary and phrase book will prove an invaluable ally, so be sure to pack one. If you have started learning the language, keep a notebook with new words you have learned and keep adding to it.
Language Courses Abroad
In some countries such as Switzerland, the au pair visa is contingent on enrolling in formal lessons. But whatever the rules and whatever your standard, it is a very good idea to sign up for a course, if only for the social advantages. It should be easy to find out about local courses from your agency, your family, the tourist office or even just the Yellow Pages. Fees vary wildly, but state-funded courses are invariably cheaper than commercial ones. In some countries, it is customary for the family to pay part or all of the fees (as in Sweden), though this is usually at the discretion of the employers.
Jessie Lane was determined to learn French so tried not to spend all her spare time with her fellow au pairs and faithfully attended classes at a local college. The classes helped her come to terms with the grammar with which she had always struggled. A big consideration before going abroad (assuming there will be other English speakers there) is to make up your mind whether you are going to have a good time or to learn the language.
Obviously it is possible to combine these by following a prescribed course where your knowledge of the language is sure to improve, as will your social life.