Hiring a Bilingual Nanny

Archived Q&A and Reviews



Considering Cantonese/Mandarin-speaking daycare - we don't speak it

April 2005

I am due in July and investigating child care options for when I return to work, in September or so. I found a family day care provider about 2 blocks from my office in SF -- SO convenient. The provider seems great, the kids seem happy, it would be great to stop by during the days for breastfeeding visits, etc.... BUT... her English isn't fantastic (even I have trouble understanding her sometimes) and the other languages she speaks (Cantonese, Mandarin, Thai) aren't ones I know myself or can reinforce at home. (I speak some Spanish.) Most of the other kids in the day care are Asian. This lady seems great but I worry about my child's English language development and I am not sure how we would ''fit in'' as a Caucasian Hispanic-Origin family. I have so many thoughts on this and would love input from anyone who has experience or advice. Thanks in advance. Pamela

We have our son (now 2.5) in a daycare in which the caregivers speak other languages better than English (Spanish and Chinese), and it hasn't hurt my son's ability in English at all - I think he's got great English language skills. He learns mostly from his parents, as I think most kids will. And as a bonus, last week he surprised me by counting to 10 in Spanish, perfectly, with great pronunciation - and I know he learned it from daycare. anon

DO IT! As a daycare provider for over 10 years, I have seen many, many children and teachers of different ethnicities working together. It is amazing and gratifying at how well a child can understand an adult with an accent (WAY better than adults). And the benefit of your child learning a third culture/language is beyond beneficial: traditions, foods, and even the language! Your infant will know no difference when growing up with this childcare provider, and he'll be home enough with you, family and friends (and eventually in preschool and elementary school) that his English development will be just fine. My opinion is that your child has an enriching and stimulating oppurtunity in store for him and should not miss it! GREAT LUCK! Lisa

It sounds like your future baby will have a great opportunity to easily become trilingual in probably the 3 most common languages in the Bay Area! I would encourage the day care provider to speak her native language to your baby while you and anyone else you live with do the same, in your respective native languages.

How your baby will ''fit in'' depends on how you present the situation to him. If you, or the day care provider, treat him as ''different'' than the babies will pick up on that and treat him differently, and your baby will feel ''different.'' If you all just treat the situation as ''normal'', then it will be. a linguist

I changed daycare last year because I couldn't communicate with the Chinese-speaking caregivers of my previous center. It drove me crazy trying to figure out if my daughter drank all her milk, or played with the other kids or anything about her personality. Of course, they wrote all the basics down on the chart, but I wanted more. Having switched I can now say that I miss some things about the first daycare. It was much smaller, which I think is better. I would take that into consideration. Also, my daughter was in her first daycare from 10 months to 14 months of age. Not really a stage that needs anything more than some attention and a safe environment, not structured learning yet. I was also concerned that they weren't reading to her in English because they couldn't. This was another factor in my decision. On the whole, I'm glad I switched. Andrea

This isn't really the same situation, but I thought I'd share my thoughts. My non-English speaking mother watched my daughter for the first year. My Chinese is not that good, enough to communicate with my mom, but with a really limited vocabulary. My daughter had no problems with two different languages being spoken to her - we only spoke English to her as my husband is Caucasian. And she has always been very verbal and articulate for her age.

My sister-in-law situation's is more similiar - she has a Hispanic nanny for her kids whose English isn't that good, but who has watched her kids since they were babies (oldest is now 11, youngest is 8). Her kids love their nanny, and had no problems at all with their English development.

I wouldn't be concerned at all about your child's language development. The question in my mind is whether her difficulty with English would hinder your communication with her, because it's pretty important that the two of you can communicate about what your child is experiencing and any issues or concerns that may come up. Good luck! Linda

I had to respond because growing up bilingual, I can say that learning a language other than English from the start was not a detriment. In fact, I'm pretty sure the best time for children to pick up languages is when they're very young. Our nanny speaks Mien and Thai and neither our son's half Asian/half Caucasian father nor I (Spanish) speak those languages, but we welcome the fact that our 16 month old boy can/will understand them. He also signs very well with us, so I don't see that learning different languages is negatively affecting him. I don't think it matters that neither you nor your husband speak the languages either. It sounds more like you don't want your baby to learn those specific languages, but I could be wrong. If I were you, my main concern would be whether your care provider perfectly understands your concerns and can follow your directions and can communicate well with you, not so much that she speaks Mandarin to your baby. As for being a Caucasian baby amongst mostly Asian babies, well I just have to say we are in California, the Bay Area, and I didn't even think these issues were raised anymore. A good care provider will treat all babies the same, whether or not they are Asian or Caucasian or Spanish. no need to worry

I'm from an English speaking family, and I went to a Chinese speaking day care, from 1.5yrs-3yrs. old, and I'm fine! Unfortunately, I forgot all the Mandarin that I spoke then, that's the only downside. But, I do speak several other languages now, so who knows, maybe that early language exposure did something good for my ability? Learning more than one language is great for kids. They can handle multiple languages with ease. My parents tell me that I had no problems understanding my Mandarin speaking day care provider, and I do remember her fondly.

If anything, your child might bring home a few new words. My 2.5 yr old son is bilingual, and while he mixes up the two languages right now, he'll have it all straightened out one day, I'm not worried at all.

Good luck with your decision. Children also figure out at a pretty early age who speaks what, so it's unlikely that he'll speak Chinese/Thai with other English speakers. Language lover mom :)

When my son was two-four years old, we had him in a mostly Spanish-speaking daycare situation. I hoped that he would develop some skills in Spanish at that time, even though my Spanish is pretty rudimentary and I would prefer ultimately that he learn one of the other two European languages I use in my work life. But guess what? He didn't want to learn ANY foreign language. He has a passive understanding of Spanish (that has faded over time), but always refused to use the Spanish words he knew. He was focused on English. This is just to say that in my limited experience, kids decide when to integrate another language into their repertoire, and your son may not have any interest in picking up the languages used in the daycare.

BUT if he does, it is unlikely to interfere with his learning either Spanish or English. Kids can (when they want to) expand into a number of languages, and some languages interfere more than others -- those that are closer to English (or Spanish) are more likely to do so. Asian languages are less likely to ''interfere.'' So I think your fears should be allayed. language person with monolingual kid


Any problems with nanny speaking in native language?


I would be grateful for any advice or suggestions regarding the benefits and disadvantages of caregivers speaking in their native tongue to children in their care. We have a newborn baby, and would like to have our nanny speak only in her native language. The nanny would be spending approximately 50 hours a week alone with our child. Neither my husband nor I are conversant in the nanny's language, but think it would be valuable to expose the baby to different sounds, as well as offering her the possibility of becoming bilingual. However, we wonder: are there any potential problems in doing so? For example, might this limit our child's ability to communicate in English with us?

I think it's great to get a caregiver to speak to your child only in her language. While it's possible that it could delay your child's ability to speak in either language (and some of that seems to depend on the individual child's innate language abilities), my observation is that over the longer term the child will pick up both languages and have richer cognitive and verbal abilities because of the early challenge.

Our child had an exclusively Mandarin-speaking caregiver from ~4 months through 20 months. At that point, he was speaking very little, but clearly could comprehend both languages. When Ayi had to move away, his English language skills zoomed ahead, and he has been considered verbally precocious ever since (but does not speak Mandarin).

I can't say what would've happened if Ayi had stayed longer, but I believe he would have begun speaking both languages fluently within a year.

With a non-English-speaking caregiver, the alternative is worse: My sister's children have a Vietnamese-speaking caregiver who refuses to speak Vietnamese to them -- and her English is really quite bad! Both kids had a really difficult time learning to shape their words properly.

My provider speaks Spanish, and although I have some proficiency, I don't have enough, clearly, because on several occasions there have been big mixups based on what she thought I said. There are several points I'd make in thinking about how we have navigated this situation so far. (we love this woman and have nothing but respect and admiration for how well she cares for our daughter)

1. a sense of humor helps.
2. Our caregiver has teenaged children who translate for us now when it is important and/or complicated. (If she has a fever I won't ask you to come except on Tuesdays but not on this Tuesday)
3. Whenever there is a schedule change I give her a calendar in writing to take home. When I see her next she makes comments indicating she has clearly looked it over and digested it.

Can't think of any more right now -- good luck -- I know it can be exasperating...


Can kids learn Spanish from a nanny?

May 2002


Has anyone had experience with kids learning another language from a nanny? Our daughter is 9 months old, and we have a wonderful Mien speaking nanny (from Laos) with whom she spends about 20 hours a week. Now that our daughter is starting to speak, we are wondering about the effect of spending so much time with someone whose grasp of English is poor and whose native language we do not believe is the most practical to learn. Ideally, we would like her to grow up speaking Spanish. Her father is almost fluent, and I am starting to learn. Have people found that their kids actually pick up Spanish from their nannies? Does anyone have a sense that 20 hours a week is enough time to be relevant? We like our present nanny and worry that it is too esoteric to let her go in order to find a Spanish speaker. On the other hand, this might be a golden opportunity for our daughter to absorb a language when her mind is most open to it. Any advice? Stevie

Our daughter had a Spanish-speaking nanny for 20 hours a week from the age of 4 months to 2.9 years. This nanny could speak no English. My daughter learned to comprehend Spanish very well and could speak a few words, but once she really got interested in language (at around 2 years) she refused to speak Spanish. This caused so much difficulty (the nanny was confused and embarrassed and my daughter was extremely frustrated) that we had to find another care provider. Susan

Yes they can! We are two families who have shared a Spanish-speaking nanny since the babies were a few months old. The other family speaks a little Spanish, we speak none. The nanny speaks enough English for the grownups to communicate with her, but we wanted her to speak Spanish to the babies because we wanted her to talk to them a lot, and we knew she'd talk a lot more if she could talk in Spanish. Also I think it helps her feel closer to him since she is talking in a language she is comfortable with. It has worked out great. Now they are 15 months old. Mine is with the nanny 4 days a week, and theirs just 2 days, plus theirs isn't talking much yet in any language, so I will give a report on mine only! He has 10 or 20 words in his vocabulary and they are mostly Spanish: water, park, ball, cat, dog, bottle, cow, things like that. (We took him to the beach a couple of weeks ago and he was shouting ''agua!'' with the right sort of accent!) Most days the nanny has a new word to tell us about that he has said (and sometimes she has to tell us what it means!) He understands simple commands in both Spanish and English, such as ''open your mouth'' and ''come here'', and says a few English words like ''cracker'' and ''book''. A lot of words are the same - mama, papa, etc. I'm really happy with the way it's worked out. I don't expect him to be truly bilingual, since his nanny is the only one in his life who speaks Spanish, but I think even this little bit of a second language early on is bound to be beneficial. Ginger

My son learned some Spanish from his nanny - -he had her from the time he was a year old to the time he was almost two, and during that time he understood her Spanish perfectly and was able to express himself somewhat in Spanish. (I should say that he is a very verbal kid, who was an early talker and has an extraordinary vocabulary for someone his age.) So yes, I think it's possible. But here are the caveats, and there are several. First of all, he would never speak Spanish with anyone who wasn't his nanny, not me, not my husband, not our Spanish- speaking housecleaner, no one. It was his special nanny language. And when she quit, unexpectedly, just before his second birthday, his Spanish went with her. (He ended up going to preschool rather than staying with a nanny, and there's limited Spanish at his preschool.) He no longer seems to understand it, although he does have an affinity for books with Mexican themes and Spanish words in them. So I think the usefulness of learning a language from a nanny is limited unless you speak Spanish at home, or have some plans for how to keep it going after the nanny relationship ends. But there's one more thing that seems important about this -- and this relates to another post in this newsletter about a nanny who doesn't do housework -- the relationship your child has with a nanny is important. Ours ended abruptly, and our son did fine, but I would have kept it going if I could because the love affair between them was a special thing. I don't think it's worth firing a nanny for something that doesn't have to do with the quality of the care your child receives. Enrichment is great, but the ability to form and keep relationships is paramount. nelly

Our daughter has had a spanish-speaking nanny since she was 6 months old, and my husband is almost fluent. I know almost nothing. My husband reports that my daughter's comprehension of Spanish is almost as good as her English. She definitely can speak in Spanish as well, but there is a differential and I suspect that it will grow as her English becomes more and more sophisticated. My sense is that she won't retain the language skills unless we continue to develop them as extensively even after her nanny departs, which may be difficult. That said, I would vote for a continuous, loving nanny over spanish-language skills any day. My daughter is now 2.5, and I am much more worried about the loss of individualized and loving attention than about loss of bilingualism when she goes to preschool. AT

Yes, absolutely your child can learn Spanish from his/her nanny. My daughter was exposed to Spanish as a toddler and, as a nine year old, understands about 50% of the Spanish she hears spoken in the house whether her father and I are talking (we are fluent non-native speakers), or whether her two year old brother's Tu/Thu sitter is talking to her or her brother. My two, almost three year old, son seems to understand about 85% of the Spanish that is spoken to him. He has, in the past, less so, now, integrated Spanish words into his English (he favors ''mano'' over ''hand,'' ''agua'' over ''water,'' for example), and used to employ the Spanish convention of putting the adjective after the noun. He speaks fine English now, although his ''h'' and ''w'' were a little ''delayed'' because Spanish doesn't employ the sound of those two letters. His expressive (spoken) Spanish is not what his receptive Spanish is. Additionally, the head of language at Children's, who is a friend of ours, cautioned us that in embarking on bi-lingual exposure to make sure that our son was not exposed to a foreign language more than 50% of the time. She said that with boys, particularly, the language centers of the brain are less developed and smaller, and that they will default to less speaking, and thereby less practicing of certain English language sounds/letters when they are bombarded by too much of the non-parental language. I hope this helps.

My kids had a Spanish-speaking nanny for a year beginning when they were 2 years old, and 3 months old. They definitely understood and learned the language from her. Jennifer

I had a Spanish speaking nanny for two and a half years and when she moved out of the area, I hired as her replacement a nanny who speaks Mien (and whose English is not nearly as clear as the first nanny's was). My child never learned any Spanish with nanny #1, but within a month or two of being under the care of the Mien nanny has used Mien words. (It is really funny to hear how well he can get the intonation, too! much better than I could do). (Both nannies were full-time, by the way - about 45- 50 hours per week) Frankly, I'm thrilled that he is learning any language other than English -- for me, the main point is the brain development that comes with learning a second language, any language. In my case, I loved my first nanny, and I love my second nanny - but I have definitely seen that each has her own strengths and weaknesses. If you like the nanny otherwise, I personally wouldn't change for that reason alone -- it isn't like a car where you can trade in one model to get a particular feature in a new model. Here you might get the CD player but lose the floormats, if you'll pardon the rather crass analogy. Fran

You have a nanny that you like and trust and are considering letting her go because you wonder if it would be better to have a Spanish speaking nanny so that your child can learn Spanish, at 20 hours a week?! I would consider myself fortunate and stick with someone with whom I trusted my child and consider myself (and my child) fortunate to learn any amount of another language. MK

Exposure to any second language, however esoteric, at an early age will benefit your child making it easier to learn other languages in the future. My daughter's nanny speaks only Spanish and my daughter is now bilingual and understands as much Spanish as English. She has been with this nanny for approx. 1 year, since she was 10 months old, for 30-40 hours per week. Her prior nanny was Portuguese speaking as is her father so she has been exposed to languages other than English from birth. This would have been an additional help to her in picking up the different sounds. Mary

Language and affect are tightly connected. If a family encourages and supports the relationship between their children and the children's caregivers, learning a second language might come naturally. If children feel that their parents value other people's cultures and languages, they are more likely to be open to learning a second language. Eliana


What if nanny only speaks Spanish part of the time?

Feb 2002


We have a nanny share going where the nanny is Span/Eng bilingual (Spanish is 1st language)...my child is 18 months and very verbal and communicative...in the past we have always encouraged our nanny to speak Spanish if she wants to, but now I am thinking it might be a good idea to only speak Spanish in order for my child to really learn something...however, we are in a share with other families who may not be interested (one family is Mandarin/Eng speaking)...is it good enough for our nanny to speak in Spanish only part of the day or on certain days or does learning a language at this age mean that Spanish communication should come from her all the time. Anonymous please.

I am Mexican-American and I grew up in a biligual household where I DID NOT learn to speak Spanish. My mother and grandmother spoke fluent Spanish to each other, but spoke to me primarily in English. Because I was not forced to think in Spanish, I did not learn it at home. They always chose Spanish speaking caregivers for me and they hoped that it would rub off on me.

I felt tremendous guilt about not learning Spanish until I got to college. My instructors at UCLA explained that language cannot be learned if you aren't forced to use it, and if you know that communicating in a language that is easier for you is an option, you probably won't learn the new language. I think your child can learn fluent Spanish if spoken to in Spanish exclusively. Any other scenario will leave your child speaking Spanglish, like I did until college. Christina

What is your purpose for having your nanny speak only Spanish to your child? I am asking because I have seen other parents who speak fluent English speak only their native language to their babies/toddlers and then they have to enroll them into bilingual classes once they hit school as the children themselves can not speak English. From an education standpoint, don't you think it would be better for your child to learn both languages at the same time instead of handicapping him once he is in the school system? You didn't say if you spoke Spanish only at home. As far as the nanny share goes, I would not presume that the other parents want Spanish only spoken as well. You should ask. They might feel the same way you do and wish their children to learn their own native language or they might want their children to learn English.. The only problem I have with any of this is it creates more of a burden on the school districts when children are not taught English from birth when they can be. I know some bilingual teachers and I have heard how they feel about well-educated parents bringing non-English speaking children to school. They have enough newly-arrived families with students from non-English speaking households who really need to be in these classes. To deliberately withhold English from a child seems selfish. To compromise, teach both lauguages at the same time.

What damaged can be caused to a child if he/she learns more than one language? Doctors have provided statistics that have favored both arguements. I think it is up to the individual parent to decide what is best for their child and not concern themselves with what is best for children in general. Every child is different!

I, and 10 of my cousins, were raised primarily by our grandmother who only spoke spanish. We went through school with no problem, and now we are all professional adults. My son was also raised around my grandmother, and he knew that when he wanted to say something to her he needed to do it in Spanish and then he would switch over to English when talking to his friends or father. He was doing this by age 2-3. Children are like sponges....they are capable of learning many different things. Let's not limit them because of our insecurities! Monica

To the mom having nanny speak in Spanish, I personally think that learning two languages during the toddler up to Kindergarten stage is a great experience for children, and I've seen it work successfully a number of times. My cousin's daughter was spoken to in Spanish only until she was four. She is fluent in Spanish. Her parents started introducing English through books at age four, and she picked up a little English there. Then, she started English only pre-shcool about three months ago. When we went out to dinner together on Sunday, she talked to me in English THE ENTIRE TIME, non-stop. She understood what I said, and I understood her perfectly. Every once in a while, I would ask her what the Spanish word for the English equivalent is, to see if she had the concept down, and she answered without hesitation. I've seen the same English, Spanish learning situation work for four other children. I've also seen the parent speak English, and the nanny speak Portuguese. That worked out just fine. I've also seen where Mom speaks Italian, Dad speaks English-- and that worked fine, too. I am pregnant, now, with a Cuban/American baby. We (Mom, Dad, and Abuela) will speak Spanish only to the baby until about age 3-4, the start a slow addition of English. Brother will speak mostly English the whole time. I anticipate that our child will be bi-lingual by Kindergarten. I've seen it work over and over again. I'm pleased to think our child will be learning tolerance and respect for many cultures and languages from and early age. Good luck, and have faith in your little sponge! --Angie

Our caregivers have always spoken only Spanish to our children because I wanted them to be bilingual. It's worked out fine. Don't worry, there won't be any problem with the children picking up English! The hard part is keeping the Spanish, because the children want to speak only English.

When I was young my parents (both immigrants) deliberately spoke only English (instead of their native Spanish) to me and I have always regretted not being able to speak Spanish with a native accent.

We have many friends who raised their children bilingually and even trilingually. There is never any problem picking up the language of the country a child lives in. Now that the children are adults, they are extremely grateful to their parents for forcing them to speak the other languages! Being fluent in another language, especially Spanish, is a wonderful gift to give your child. Census predictions say that by 2010 something like half of California will be Spanish speaking, so think of how useful it will be when your children are adults.

The only problem I've run into is the Berkeley school district does not allow you to put two languages down on the form when you enroll your child in kindergarten. You are only allowed to say they speak one language. I tried to talk to the school officials about this but was rebuffed.