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Want Bilingual Kids? Use Your Nanny!

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Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: There's a scene in the little-seen, good-enough-for-a-plane-trip flick "Fun with Dick and Jane" in which parents Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni realize that their son speaks more Spanish than English, courtesy of the Spanish-speaking nanny that he spends more time with than he does his career-oriented parents. The scene was played for laughs, obviously, and was positioned as a cautionary tale: If you turn your kids over to a caregiver who doesn't speak English with them, they'll grow up saying "uno, dos, tres" instead of "one, two, three."

nanny with kid
It's an idea the movie presented with a sneer, but for many parents these days, it sounds ideal. According to arecent New York Times article, an increasing number of families are seeking nannies who can interact with their children in languages other than English, in the hopes that their children will gain valuable bilingual language skills. In many ways, it makes good sense: You need to hire someone to watch your kids anyway, right? And many of the people seeking nanny work speak another language as their primary tongue already. So why not combine the two things?

The trend is growing -- many nanny companies are now marketing themselves to take advantage of the second-language bonus their caregivers offer -- and certainly, it's better to value a nanny's ability to speak Spanish than to disparage it. And yet there's something about this trend that bothers me. Maybe it's the way some languages will almost certainly be considered more useful (and therefore valuable) than others. (Pity the nanny whose skills in Haitian Kreole or Farsi don't exactly lend themselves to bragging at the local mommy café.) Then too, there's the problem of asking someone who lacks specific teaching skills and experience to serve as a de facto language instructor. If what you want from your nanny is not just (just!) loving care for your child, but also a leg up in the international job market, shouldn't you be paying her more?

Research is clear that learning a second language in very early childhood (either in tandem with or just after an initial language) can be very beneficial to a child's development. And it would be lovely to see English-speaking Americans finally poised to join the rest of the world in the ability to learn to more than one language. It's hard to say yet whether this is an actual evolution or just a fad, though -- or whether learning a second language is getting support both at school and at home, as an educational priority.


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