Nannies double as language instructors

New immigrants give rise to phenomenon of bilingual toddlers

October 02, 2002|By Mireya Navarro | Mireya Navarro,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - When Daniel Etkin first spoke, he said words like "mommy" and "vacuum," perhaps not what his father 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 latest 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 job 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.

$100,000 a year

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 or 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.

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 continuing 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."

Genesee said that raising a bilingual child was hard work but called nannies "a very good start." Up to the age of 3 or 4, he said, children can achieve fluency in any language simply by being exposed to it, just as they would learn English from a parent. But the exposure must be frequent and consistent over at least a year or two, he said.

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.

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, 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.")

Keeping the skills

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