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
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
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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