OCTOBER 2002

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Hello Mommy, Hola Nanny; Immigrant Baby Sitters Double as Language Teachers
The New York Times
September 19, 2002, Thursday, Late Edition - Final
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

 By Mireya Navarro

When Daniel Etkin first spoke, he said words like "mommy" and "vacuum," perhaps not what his daddy most wanted to hear but a reflection of his fascination with the vacuum cleaner.

But Daniel's first words also included "agua" (water) and "bonito" (pretty), taught to him by the Salvadoran nanny who has been at his side since he was a week old. The nanny, Morena Lopez, does not speak English and his parents are not fluent in Spanish, so at the tender age of 2, Daniel is the only person in the household with the facility to communicate between them. And as with many other children in New York City and other areas with large immigrant populations, the nanny in Daniel's case not only feeds him and watches after him but has become his language instructor.

The rising demand for nanny services by working parents over the last decades and the niche that new immigrants have found in such work have combined to make nannies de facto language teachers to children of English-speaking parents. That trend, along with many children whose immigrant parents speak other languages, has given higher visibility to a cultural phenomenon in many playgrounds: the bilingual toddler.

The latest socioeconomic data from the census is not yet fully available, but Spanish seems to be the foreign language more children are learning at an earlier age in a city where demographic shifts have led to a higher number of nannies and care givers from Latin America and the Caribbean.

"If Daniel is growing up in New York City he should speak Spanish," said Daniel's mother, Liz Etkin, a headhunter who lives with her husband and son in Washington Heights, an area of Manhattan that is heavily Dominican. "The Hispanic population is growing faster than any other population."

Daniel's proficiency in Spanish came about by chance -- only a Spanish-speaking nanny was available to take care of him. But some parents are seeking out nannies specifically for the language they speak. At times they want to maintain their own family's native language, or want the children to have help with homework. Many parents say they want their children to have a linguistic advantage as adults.

And in the case of American parents who adopt children from other countries, like China, they sometimes want to build a link between children and their roots.

"We want Alex to grow up with a great sense of pride about her birth culture," said Barbara Turvett, a freelance writer and editor who along with her husband adopted a daughter, now 7, as a baby in China and hired a Mandarin-speaking nanny.

Some job placement agencies say that in as many as 25 percent of cases parents specifically request a nanny who speaks a second language, mostly Spanish but also French, Korean and Japanese. These nannies are so sought after in some circles that a candidate, particularly if college-educated and well-versed in English, can trigger a bidding war and command more than $100,000 a year, said Clifford Greenhouse, president of the Pavillion Agency, a large national placement service that serves an upscale clientele.

Most nannies, however, are paid $10 to $15 an hour, or less than $35,000 a year -- with two weeks of vacation pay as standard but no health benefits, some employment agencies and nannies say.

Early language instruction is a controversial subject, especially in monolingual countries, some experts note. Parental concerns range from worries that young children may be confused if taught two languages at once to fears that they will experience speech and other developmental delays that could hamper their progress in school.

But Fred Genesee, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal who has done extensive research on bilingual acquisition in preschool and school-age children, said such concerns were baseless, although research is ongoing for certain groups.

"People have the notion that children are designed to learn only one language and that exposing them to a second language taxes their ability to learn language," he said. "But we've looked at children growing up in bilingual homes and there's no evidence that they are slower in their language development or are confused."

Nannies say they have it easier when they start with the children as newborns, and many nannies pass on their language almost inadvertently through everyday interaction. Some give their teaching some structure, though, using songs and games, for instance, to make the language fun, or arranging play dates with other bilingual children for reinforcement.

But some children resist. Gigi Heckenbenner, 30, a French-born nanny who was raised in Tahiti and now lives with a family on the Upper East Side, said her first charge in the States, a 2-year-old boy, at first took an interest in tapes and video games in French, but soon came to see them as homework.

"He'd walk away or ignore me," she said.

Ms. Heckenbenner said she approached the 2 1/2-year-old girl she lives with now more gingerly, first with French songs and then random words, always giving their translation at the same time "to get her interested." Within months the girl could put a sentence together, she said.

At a playground in Washington Heights one recent afternoon, Daniel and other preschool children followed orders in Spanish -- and spoke in Spanish to their nannies or in a combination of Spanish and English like "Mi ball" -- although they switched to English when talking to each other.

"Brinca!" Daniel's nanny, Ms. Lopez, 44, whom he calls "Momo," said, urging him to jump as he stood on top of a miniature slide in white shirt and diapers.

"A big jump," he said. Then in Spanish: "Voy a brincar alto." ("I'm going to jump high.")

As the children enter school, maintaining their fluency in a language other than English becomes more of a struggle, parents say, and many do lose the skill. But some parents find schools that provide instruction in two languages, or pay for private lessons, plan immersion vacations in other countries and in some cases, even decide to keep the nanny.

That is what Ms. Turvett has done with Jia Shu Yuan, a nanny who has cared for her daughter, Alexandra Pauly, since she was a baby and has become a family figure and a role model. Mrs. Yuan, who is in her 60's and was an architect in China, is formally teaching Alexandra to read and write Mandarin.

"I don't like practicing it," Alexandra said of the language as she sat on her nanny's lap in her family's apartment on the East Side.

But Alexandra now has a big incentive to keep up the studies: her parents have promised to take her back to China for the first time to visit her orphanage when she turns 8.

"I can talk to the kids in China," she said.

In New York City, many children find plenty of people to talk to right at home. Sherri Gorelick said her 3-year-old daughter, Ava Mikkelsen, had befriended all the Dominican shopkeepers along West 181st Street. She also orders in Spanish at Latin restaurants, eats "frijoles" and swivels her hips to "bachata" music -- and has given her English-speaking parents a new connection to their own neighborhood.

By now, Ava can also carry on a conversation with her Salvadoran nanny, Angie Alvarez, 50, and leave her parents clueless about what has just been said.

"What blows me away is that Ava speaks to me in English and she looks at Angie and speaks in Spanish," Ms. Gorelick said.

Labor organizations like Domestic Workers United say nannies should receive higher pay for the expectation that they teach a language, but that rarely happens.

Many of the nannies who could not speak English were hobbled in finding other types of work in this country. But the nannies, many of whom are housewives with children of their own, said they loved what they did, including teaching language.

Some noted that such teaching only underscored the importance of their work.

"Unfortunately there's a perception that nannies just go to the park," said Zoila Quijandria, 42, a college-trained social worker from Peru who as a nanny got multiple job offers when she recently became available through the Pavillion Agency.

"I prepare," she said. "I read articles. We never turn on the TV."

"People like us worry not just about the education of the children but about their manners, their nutrition," she added. "It's a beautiful job."


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