When to introduce a new language to a bilingual child? Part 2: School

When should we introduce the language of schooling to our bilingual child? Advice from a specialist in bilingual family interaction
When should we introduce the language of schooling to our bilingual child? Advice from a specialist in bilingual family interaction

by Soile Pietikainen

Is "as early as possible" always the best time to introduce a new language to a bilingual child? No, it is not. Choosing a school for a bilingual child can be tricky. Choosing when to introduce a new language for schooling is truly a delicate matter. Here is your guide to considering the options. This article covers bilingual children going to the local school, how to assess bilingual schools and how to plan schooling for globally mobile children. At the end of this article there is a section on what it takes to keep the minority language developing during school years. 


1. When should we introduce the language of school for a bilingual child living permanently in one country?

Parent often ask me about choosing the language of schooling for their bilingual child and when to introduce the language of school? It can be slightly more complicated than parents might initially realize. "The earlier the better" makes little sense as a rule of thumb in these matters. 


Q: Is going to a local school the best for bilingual children if this is their permament home country?

If you are permanently settled to live where you live then the default option is to simply go to the local school with other local children.

This gives your child the credentials of a real local person who will develop the local language to a native language standard. Your child will understand the local society and be accepted as a member of the local society. Being from somewhere is very important for identity and belonging. 


Q: What should I consider when sending my bilingual child to school in their strongest language?

Many bilingual children are dominant in the local language by the time they start school. They will be just fine with starting school in the local language. Your challenge will be keeping the minority language developing at a roughly similar pace. That what Bilingual Potential specialises in. See the advice about keeping the minority language going later in this article. 


Q: What if my child is a minority language speaker and needs to learn the local language fast to start school?

If you have been doing brilliantly with the minority language in the early years and it’s your child’s dominant language, well, then things will be trickier. Your success will temporarily backfire. Starting school is a bottle neck for minority language native speakers. I am not going to sugar coat this.

Especially, if you do not use the local language at home because it is not a parent’s native language, then it is important to build up your child’s spoken fluency and listening comprehension for school's teaching language in the last 6-8 months before the school starts. There are good ways to do that. Just ask Bilingual Potential. 

Be prepared for hard times at the beginning, if your child is starting school in a bilingual's weaker language or - worse - in a new language. Your child won't understand much of what the teachers say to the class, even if your child appears to understand adults in one-to-one conversations. They will struggle to follow instructions. They will need to rely on imitating what others do. They can appear to school staff as slow, distracted or disobedient. 

The reality is that your minority language native speaker may be unfairly punished at school because the school thinks they are native speakers of the local language - based on the fact they are local children. Your child may well feel socially excluded from other children for a good part of the first school year. 

Your child can react by becoming withdrawn, by refusing to speak at school (selective mutism) or they might slash out in anger and aggression towards adults or other children. Although this is a completely understandable reaction to the linguistic isolation and powerlessness in the first months of school in a new language, many schools will label the minority language child as a troublemaker, less able, socially deprived or deviant. 

This is a genuine problem of instituinalised racism and ethnic discrimination. It is built into the schooling system as a defult and operates without any person consciously meaning to discriminate. Unless adults receive training to identify the social process of new language learner's adaptation to school, they cannot see the process.

Talking about racism, all immigrants are not treated equally. Every country has specific prejudices towards specific languages, nationalities, skin colours, religions and cultures. All linguistic minorities are not treated equally. You know exactly what I mean. Discrimination and deeply ingrained racism towards children of immigrants is a reality in schools today as it was in the past. It serves no purpose to pretend otherwise. 

When education professionals receive training on this they become able to change their assumptions and reactions. However, harly any education professional has ever received competent training on this matter. Not even in London where every classroom has a significant proportion of minority language speakers.

For parents this is a balancing act. There are no obvious or easy solutions. Introducing too much of the local language too early risks the whole bilingualism dream never becoming true: the local language dominates early and the minority language fades away without ever becoming established. 

On the other hand, too little of the local language too late will put the child through a traumatic entry to school. This is why I suggest a soft introduction to the local language at age 3-4 and then a targetted preparation for school in the last 6-8 months before the school starts. You can contact Bilingual Potential for advice on how to handle starting school. 

Just one important thing: the solution is not for you to stop speaking your language to your child or even partially to parent in the local language instead of your native language. If you feel under pressure to do that, please talk to Bilingual Potential first. We will help you find a better way. 

The good news is that a very strong native minority language will help your child to learn the school’s language fast. Your child will catch up and do very well indeed – as long as they have not been negatively labelled by the school!


Q: Should I send my child to a bilingual school if I can? 

If you can send bilingual children to a bilingual school in a parent’s native language combined with the local language then that is an option really worth considering.

When you are considering a bilingual school that supports your child’s both languages look for the keywords that indicate that the school in competent in one of the strong forms of bilingual education. Strong forms of bilingual education are pedagogy approaches actively aiming for the pupil to become a competent bilingual and proven to lead to good bilibgfual learning outcomes. This really matters, as not all bilingual schools are effective learning environment for children to grow up bilinbgual.

There is a whole academic and professional literature about the strong forms of bilingual education. You want the see the school website containing one of these terms that indicate that they implement (or at least claim to implement) one of the strong forms of bilingual education.

The strong forms of bilingual education:

  • Immersion school
  • Dual language school (either 50/50 or 90/10 model)
  • Two-way immersion (it is the same as dual language) 
  • Heritage language school. 

These school types are not all suitable for all children. It is important to know which one is suitable for your child. 

  • Immersion school teaches a minority language to majority language children. It is suitable for children learning a completely new language through schooling. All children are beginners in learning the school's language. Parents who want to introduce a non-native language take note: this is a good choice for you. 
  • Dual-language/two-way immersion school brings together two local language communities. It is a great bilingual schooling model when there are two main languages locally, like English-French in Canada or English-Spanish in the USA or English-Welsh in Wales. Half of the children are from one language background and half are from the other. Dual language school is in my view the optimal way to introduce a second langauge to a monolingual child and to support bilingual learning for local bilingual children. If the languages of the dual language school are the languages your child needs, then go for it! You have hit the jackpot. However, this type of school is problematic for bilingual children who have a home language different from the two supported by the school. You could be adding fragmentation and too many languages. Your child's bilingual development could suddenly become far more difficult. Never add two new languages at the same time. Seriously consider the risks if you would be adding a third language via a dual language school. You can ask Bilingual Potential for a Family Language Profile Analysis to make a wise choice. 
  • Heritage language schools teach a minority language to minority language children from the same ethno-linguisitic background. This is the model used for revitalising indigenous minority languages. I would also class under this heading the schools that some states offer to children of their nationality living in major cities abroad. In London we have such schools for the French, German and the Spanish, for example. Some private school offer their own modified versions of this. This kind of school can be a great choice for bilingual children in general, and can be real bonus for an expat child. When these schools are run with funding from the national governement, they can have free or heavily discounted places for children who have the nationality. It's worth finding out. 

If you have been lucky enough to find a bilingual school in your language combination, then it's time to visit the school.  When visiting a bilingual school, ask the head teacher and several teachers at the school to explain the following things. You want to find out that they all give the same competent and consustent answers. 

Questions to ask when visiting a bilingual school:

  • Which model of bilingual education do you follow?
  • What does it mean?
  • What makes your school a strong form of bilingual education? 
  • Is it suitable for my child? Why?
  • Why do you think this is the best model for this particular school?

If they look baffled with any of this bilingual education terminology, they have probably never read an academic text on bilingual education or a professional textbook for a specific model of bilingual education. At least you will know that if you choose the school. 

Of course we all know that most bilingual families have no access to any bilingual schooling, let alone to a well-run school implementing a known strong form of bilingual education. So, we've got to get by without it.

Personal note from Soile: Please do not introduce an unnecessary third language to a bilingual child by sending them to school in a new language. To be absolutely clear about this, I would ever recommend sending a bilingual child into a school that teaches in yet another new language. If you are considering that option, please contact me to talk trough the risks and alternatives in a single session of Bilingual Family Consultancy. You do not want to make a mistake like that. There are very limited reasons why in some cases it might be justified to introduce a third language to a bilingual child through schooling. What situation would that be? The one introduced just below. 


2. How do we choose a language of schooling for expat children who move between different countries?

If your child is moving between countries and will not grow as member of one specific society, then the schooling language is a hugely important choice. Moving between countries might mean that it is hard to know what languages will be spoken in future countries of residence. Sometimes the family might live in a country where everyone speaks one of the family's languages. Sometimes there might be no schooling available in any of the languages anyone in the family speaks.

If your family is going to make international moves between more than two counties and languages, then aim for stagility and continuity. Globally mobile children really depend on linguistic stability of their home and the linguistic stability of their changing schools.

The golden questions to ask in order to make wise choices:

1. What is the one language in which you can provide schooling all the way through from 5 to 19?

2. How will you provide proper literacy teaching in at least one of the parents' native languages if the school does not teach native language literacy in it?


The schooling options are:

Option 1: Local school - When to choose the local school for an expat child? 

  • When you live in a country of your nationality, even for a year or two, going to a local school with local children is an unmissable opportunity to learn the language and to understand the culture of the child's genuine ethnic background. And you will get competent literacy teaching the family language. Do not miss this opportunity.  
  • When the language of your child's schooling is a local language in your country of residence and you are staying for more than just a year. For example, if you are providing continuity of schooling lanagueg by children always going to school in English regardless of where you live, then living in an English spekaing country is a goldden opportunity to take a step out of the expat bubble and gain an experience of the real sociaty of where you live. Genuine intecultural understanding is built with monocultural people out there. Not in the international bubble. 
  • When you are staying in the same country for a relatively long time, for example 5 years or more. In this case it really makes sense to go to school with locals, actually become advanced bilingyal in teh local lanagueg and gain a real understanding of the culture. Then your child will have really lived in the country. As ever, it will be the parents' responsibility to keep at least one of the parents' native languages and the international continuity languages going at home, including literacy. (Did you hear someone say that children absorb languages like sponges? They were kidding.)


Option 2: International school - When to choose an international school or another private school in an international language?

  • When none of your family langauges is a schooling language where you live and the local lanagueg is not yoru international language of choice, then an International school or a private school in your chosen international lanagueg is the way to go. For example, if our Finnish-Italian family permanently living in London had gone to live in Denmark temporarily for a year, it would have made sense for our children to go to school in English in an international or private school. 


Option 3: Home schooling - When do I need to do home schooling for bilingual children? 

  • Pretty much all bilingual families would need a form of home schooling for minority language literacy teachingl. Lack on minority lanagueg literacy is the single biggest reason why such a large proportion of bilingual children's minority languages fade away or become fossilised at very low levels skills during primary school. You can see that this is a huge topic. We'll need to come back to this. 
  • Home schooling can also be the only or the best solution to awaid adding a new language to an already bilingual or trilingual child. 


3. Keeping up the minority language during schooling

The school years are a major challenge for bilingual parenting and professional help can come handy in putting in place support systems.

The minority language will start to decline immediately when bilingual children start school in the majority language. Literally, your child could stop speaking their parent’s native language in a few months from starting school. At the very least you will see an increase in language mixing, and you will need to learn when language mixing is just fine and when it really is not. 

If this happens, it is not a phase. It is a sign of the language being eroded fast. Ask for help! That language loss can be prevented and even turned around.

This what Bilingual Potential is all about. We can teach you how to avoid the minority language being lost during schooling in the majority language.If your child is struggling to speak your language or has stopped speaking it recently, we can teach you how to activate your child's minority language again.

We do all this by teaching you how to use the 20x20 seconds method of Bilingual Speech Activation.

There is no need for your child to lose the minority language during the school years. With the right parenting skills you can keep supporting their Harmonious Bilingual Development all the way through. 


This article was written by Soile Pietikainen. Soile is a sociologist specialised in bilingual family interaction with over 20 years of experience of resolving bilingual family situations that have gone wrong. She is trilingual herself and a mother of trilingual teens. Soile is the founder of Bilingual Potential, an ethical enterprise dedicated to language minority children’s right to their parents’ native languages. Th

The previous post in this series was about when to introduce your child to the parents' native languages and to the language of your local society.

In the next blog post is about introducing children to foreign languages.