To Send My Child to a Bilingual School or Not? That Is the Question.

by Alice · 18 comments

By Alice Lapuerta
Photo Credit: MIKI Yoshihito

One would think that for a multicultural family the answer’s obvious: yes, of course you send your daughter to a bilingual school! How can you even pose this question! Nevertheless I hesitated. I pondered. I weighed my choices back and forth in my mind. You see, it’s not that easy.

I talked to people about this and am surprised at the great amount of arguments that I heard against taking such a step.

A recurring one is: “But all her friends are going to the local school here!” (true, true …) as well as “But the school is so far away, at the other end of town! And here you have a really good elementary school right next door! How can you think of driving so far every day?”  Indeed.

The recurrent argument being: “But how can you even think about tearing your child out of its familiar environment! She’ll be completely isolated!”

This is where I tell myself, now wait a minute. What kinds of assumptions are being made here? If we send our daughter to said bilingual school, the whole family will suffer because…

  • the school is too far away,
  • she will lose all her friends,
  • she will be isolated,
  • and therefore be dreadfully unhappy,
  • and anyhow, who says that the bilingual school is any better than the local school? The teachers there might be as bad as anywhere else. There are bad apples in every basket, they tell me.

All these arguments made me uneasy.

So, as a pathological list maker, I made not one, but four lists:

Plus points for sending my daughter to the bilingual school:

  • Language development opportunity in English and German.
  • She will see that she is not the only child learning more than a language.
  • Since the school is more multicultural, she’ll fit in well with the other kids.
  • The teachers, some of whom have trilingual families themselves, completely understand our situation and will be supportive of her language development. In our case, a “bad” teacher is a teacher who doesn’t understand our situation.
  • She will end up as a true balanced bilingual.

Minus points for sending my daughter to the bilingual school:

  • School is too far away, no school bus, so need to drive.
  • She might lose touch with local friends.
  • She might get isolated.

Plus points for sending my daughter to the local, German-only school:

  • It’s right next-door.
  • All of her friends go there.
  • She knows the school.
  • They learn English from first grade on as well. Once a week.

Minus points for sending my daughter to the local, German-only school:

  • Little to no English.
  • Very little emphasis on multiculturalism.
  • She might be the “odd” one there.
  • Will the teachers really understand her situation?

On analyzing my list, we concluded that the two main points we were concerned with were:  fostering my daughter’s bilingual development versus the fact that the school is “too far away.”

So what did we decide?  What did all of this deliberation lead to?

In the end, we came to the conclusion that getting up an hour earlier is but a small sacrifice to make.

We enrolled her in the bilingual school.

Two years later, I can’t believe that distance and having to get up an hour earlier was even thought of as an issue! None of the minus points against the school turned out to be a problem. Our children are going to a school that is different from the locals, but they have not lost touch with their local friends here. They are not “isolated.”

However, I am glad that my husband and I thought through everything ahead of time.  The lists, if anything, have helped us define what we want for our daughter and the concerns that were on our minds.  We have also been able to look back at our lists to remind ourselves that yes, everything is going along just fine.

Have you had to decide where to send your child to school?  Did you have a similar choice between a bilingual school and a non-bilingual school?  What was your choice?  Are you happy with your choices?

Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Oliver September 4, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Regardless of all the pros and cons – the bottom line is: does the kid feel comfortable in the school? If the child can’t get along with the teacher or the other students, then this will probably influence the learning more than any pedagogical concept. I once had parents asking me (a teacher) if they should send their children to our bilingual school. They were even prepared to move to a different city just because of the school. I refuse to give a yes or no answer, telling them that complex decisions are probably best made from your belly by intuition. Alice, you had a “heads” approach for choosing the right school. If your heart also says the same, and if your kids also like the school, then you are in a lucky position. My kid still has 6 years to go until it’s time for school. Much water will still run down the Danube river (as a local saying goes), until we have to ultimately decide. If we make the wrong decision, we’ll simply have to change schools. Oliver.


2 September 5, 2010 at 3:34 pm

We were lucky enough to get a spot at an immersion school in the Seattle Public School District. Luckily it was somewhat close to our house and the school district would provide transportation for our son. He’s been there one year and I’m totally happy with the education. I’ve seen real progress in his Japanese and well as English reading and writing. Integrating wasn’t a problem and he made new friends easily and is looking forward to starting back in the fall.

The issues we didn’t consider that I continue to struggle with is not being part of the community where he goes to school. It’s hard to integrate yourself into a community where you don’t live or work. The other issue was that we then ended up having 2 kids in elementary school but each going to a differnent one (since our oldest son remained at our neighborhood school). The reason this causes a strain is because you then have 2 schools requesting your support for volunteer time, involvement and fundraising. Whatever you have to left to give at the end of the day has to be spread over two schools. Instead of having your efforts go a little further if you were to devote your time and energy to only one school you have two Halloween parties, two jog-a-thons, two end of the year celebrations, and on and on it goes.

However, in the end I am truly happy we moved him. It is a wonderful experience for him and I only wish that we were able to have sent our oldest to this school from the begining.


3 Petra September 7, 2010 at 8:47 pm

We are living in Australia and have the option to drive for 1 hour to a bilingual english-german school. With very similar arguments, as Alice’s, going through our mind we decided to go with the local school down the road and are very happy with the decision. We might still send our children for high school to the bilingual school but for primary school, being part of the local community was most important to us.


4 Mable September 8, 2010 at 10:53 am

I am having this dilemma right now. We have a public school in our district that is offering Mandarin immersion. If I send my kids there, I will not have to send them to a separate afterschool program that offers Mandarin which in turn will save about $900 a month and they won’t need to be out for the whole day. They also share the same school calendar as our local middle school which should makes the transition easier when my older one goes to middle school and the younger one stays in elementary. This would be a good time to make the move because my younger one will need to decide on his kindergarten in a few months. Although the API scores for the school is lower than our neighborhood school, the reviews from parents whom I have talked to have been very positive.

But it is hard to convince myself that it is the right thing to do given that the school is slightly farther, not in my local community, is situated in a less than ideal neighborhood and have lower API scores. I also have a hard time telling my older son that he will be leaving his current school which he seems to enjoy.

Can’t figure out what is the best thing to do here…I don’t want them going to separate schools either…


5 Maria September 9, 2010 at 1:55 am

As parents, this must be one of the decisions we worry about most, what school? My baby is not even 1 and I am already losing sleep over this!

There is an international school very near us, which has a mother tongue program: every kid has a certain amount of hours a week of study of and in their mother tongue, whichever that is. So our kid could go to school in English but still know how to write perfectly in Spanish, know Spanish literature, etc. However, it’s private, so expensive, a bit farther away and would need to drive, and our local schools are quite good too! So what to do!!! We will wait and see. Who knows what our financial situation will be in 5 years time, who knows what my job will be then… too many factors in the air to decide anything now, but the worry is already there.


6 Lee September 13, 2010 at 7:25 pm

It was no contest for us — immersion school on the other side of the (small) county won hands down for us. Our son’s Latino and going to the immersion school ensures he’s around a diverse group of kids (we’re caucasian). Our neighborhood school has sky-high test scores but is lily-white and has no plans to offer even minimal foreign language instruction (some schools in our county have piloted Spanish as part of the school day). Our son has friends on our street, but also has friends from school nearby and it’s not such a hardship to drive to a different part of the county. I cannot imagine sending him to our neighborhood school. He likely will go to an immersion middle school located even farther from us (again, other side of the county), rather than to our closer neighborhood middle school. Acquiring another language and a multicultural curriculum trump all — and the kids at his school are great!


7 Rou September 13, 2010 at 9:39 pm

We’re raising our daughter trilingual. She’s in her second year of preschool, and I’m trying something this year. She goes to a preschool, Reggio Emilia based 3 times per week, and the other 2 days to a wonderful day care part time in French. So we’ll see how the experiment turns out. I speak French to her, spanish is the family get together language and English her community language. She’s not mixing that much, since She know there are three different ” channels ” in her head.
Let’s see how this will turn……. !!!!


8 Kate October 11, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Whilst I would love to be in a position to consider a bi-lingual school for my son (and his brother who’s still on the way), it is simply not an option for us as we do not have any money and bi-lingual schools cost. You all sound lovely caring people, but lovely, caring, financially secure and quite frankly, well-off people. What do you suggest for those who don’t have the choices you have? We are trying to do OPOL at home, but I’m English, Daddy is Albanian and we live in Italy. We speak in English or Italian between us as a couple because my Albanian is terrible, and sometimes Daddy uses an expression in English because he prefers it or it comes naturally to him with his son, but it would appear that for the last month or so the Albanian is really suffering as it’s extraordinarily hard to find any decent books or films or anything in Albanian, Daddy’s working hard and now our son has started playschool he’s really picking up Italian and trying to teach it to Daddy…. Any help appreciated!


9 Melissa October 13, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Kate, I think we might be seeing a selection bias in this particular conversation – mostly people who have access to (geographically and financially) bilingual schools. It simply isn’t an option for a lot of people, as you say. Due to our particular circumstances right now (daughter really needs to go to preschool, I really need to work) we did sign our daughter up for a bilingual school, probably just for this school year and mostly because it was the only option available!

I think there are plenty of things you can do as a family to support your children without the support of a bilingual school. Depending on your area of Italy, you may be able to find some Albanian kids your son’s age. Albania isn’t far away from you – can you visit or have family members visit you? Or if Skype is an option, it has done wonders for us.

Basically, you’re right, not every solution is helpful for every family, but if one solution doesn’t work, you can definitely still find something that will!


10 Hanaa June 4, 2013 at 11:53 am

Hi, I live in an area of the world where public education is for the most part unthinkable for us, we HAVE to put our kids in private schools and even there, we’re not very happy, but I try to compensate at home. Two of my kids are also trilingual, the others temporarily monolingual, just because we’ve moved a lot in the last few years and they’re still very young. But I know a lot of people in my situation here and they’ve told me that so far the best solution for them was to get in touch with other people in their community (in your case the Albanian), often through the Embassy or Consulate you can get great contacts. Play groups with members of this community might prove to be very useful even for you to pick up some Albanian!


11 Jo November 24, 2010 at 2:03 pm

My, is this familiar. I think we are lucky because we live in an area of France where there are enough international families (due to it being right next to Geneva) where the French state school (non-fee-paying) in fact offers bilingual programmes in several languages. So we can have our trilingual children integrate into the local French community, have local friends and good French literacy skills by attending the local school, but also ensure they get the German literacy skills through the programme for German speakers. This programme has basic reading and writing instruction in primary school one afternoon a week (integrated into the timetable so they don’t have to miss out or do extra lessons) for children who speak German at home. This is intended to enable the children to have the language skills so they can do about half of their schooling in German at secondary level (and the other half in French with their French classmates).
The challenge for us is then going to be their English, which for the moment is strong, but we will have to find a way to get them reading and writing in English. But there are many more resources more easily available for English than for German, hence our decision to prioritise schooling in German and aim to work hard on English at home. I just have to be careful not to make it into an unwelcome chore…
In terms of schooling, our alternatives were similar to the ones discussed by other contributors: far away from our home, costly, questions of class/social integration, and in our case of mobility: many international families here come for a year or two and then move on as the parents’ jobs change, so friends come and go which can be difficult for children to deal with. Also because the international schools have large catchment areas, the friends our children would make could live more than an hour away from us, making for complicated social arrangements which impact on family life.
Our oldest is still just four years old, so we haven’t had to make any hard and fast decisions yet, so if anybody has any comments, I’d love to hear them.


12 Catherine May 14, 2012 at 11:57 am

I am in such a dilemma – anybody who has experience and can give advice – help !!

We are a German-British couple living in rural Italy (an hour from Rome where my husband works). Our older son is nearly 4 years old and learning his 3rd language, Italian, at school basically by the being-thrown-in-the-deep-end approach and he is just NOT the boy for this. He’s lovely, sensitive, intelligent, and sweet to his 2-year old sister. They have a great relationship, they basically adore one another and play constantly (and amazingly, chat away to each other in some bizarre way)
But school is completely freaking him out. He’s too shy, and add to this the communication problem – it’s just too much! It’s been 9 months now and I’ve tried play dates with school mates (this would have been a success if the contacts hadn’t fizzled out because of total lack of interest on the part of the Italian familes – they have each other after all why do they need us?!), I’ve tried more exposure to Italian – a neighbour babysitter, lots of socialising in Italian etc. But he just curls up and doesn’t want to know. The terrible thing is I think he starts to associate Italian with negative experiences at school. I’ve got a meeting with his teacher on Friday and if she confirms my fears I’m seriously thinking we should pull him out of school completely till next year, when he’ll start at an International school an hour’s drive away. Seems crazy but I think we must do it – not only is it just not working out at the local primary, I also know from many reports that the local schooling only goes downhill from here.

The worst thing is after school – specially when he’s been going for 3-4 days running – he is AWFUL to be with. He becomes a different person. He picks on his sister relentlessly, which she finds a real trauma – I can’t leave them alone in a room for 2 minutes let alone the hour or so that I can get away with at normal times (obviously checking occasionaly but they just play happily normally and almost always resolve their own disagreements). And I also can’t cope with it. It’s hell.

I guess my real question is – what are the pros and cons of pulling a nearly-four year old out of school for a year? Is it a completely crazy thing to do? I know if we do we’ll get a lot of criticism from friends and other families here – we’d need to be strong!


13 Hanaa June 4, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Hi, I was in a very similar situation as yours 2 years ago. My experience has been that he need A LOT of time to adjust and open up, 9 months seems like a lot of time, but in our case it was just the start. It took around 12 months for him to get comfortable and start socializing with local kids, inviting them over, calling them friends and accepting invitations. Keep the play groups small, 1 or 2, preferably siblings about the same age or a tiny bit older, that did wonders in our case! Good luck!


14 Kate May 14, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Don’t worry about what other people think, for a start. You have to do what is best for you and your family. Your gut instinct is often the one you should listen to. I have 2 lovely boys, both of whom frequent Italian pre-schools. I have been incredibly lucky with the class my elder child is in, as not only are the other kids in the class from basically nice families, but also his teacher is trying to teach the class English as her own personal project. This means that he has had a lot of support from her while trying to get to grips with his 3rd language. He went to a “nido” until he was 3 and hated it. He didn’t want to have anything to do with Italian and didn’t say so much as Ciao. I felt terrible for him, but had to send him for economic reasons. Now he has blossomed in Italian, although his behaviour is sometimes quite difficult. I think this is really down to him mixing with his peers and seeing them behave and react differently and trying it out for himself. His younger brother who now goes to a “nido” , but not the one same one, is streets ahead of where his brother was on the Italian comprehension, but has also adopted a lot of the bad behaviour he sees at school. I think this is normal and only to be expected, but since your son is still very young and doesn’t “need” to go to school yet, I’d have another year of “good” education at home and let him just play in the parks etc. with Italian kids, if you can. He’ll get there, but probably just needs time to grow up and adjust. 4 is still a very young age and having a lilttle sister who doesn’t sound as though she has to deal with this and maybe seems to get more mummy time than him… Jealousy is very difficult to handle too, at any age, but particularly at such a tender one. Good luck! Listen to your heart – remember you can never please all the people all the timea and at the end of the day he’s your responsibility and you know him best!


15 Catherine May 16, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Dear Kate,

Thank you so much for your reply. I can’t tell you how much this has helped me. I’ve been discussing the options with many people I know – in fact I’ve gone round and round now till I don;t know any more which way is up! I’ve also managed to speak to our son (under the pretext of organising him a summer party with his school friends) about school a bit more and am suspecting from what he says that he’s being picked on by 3 of the boys in his class. I’ve arranged to meet his teacher tomorrow.

I’m now having serious discussions with my poor tired husband every evening (his job is VERY stressful) – the one person besides me who really has a right to decide what we do now. It may be that we give school one more chance, helping him more by trying to help him make friends in the class (again! But I haven’t yet tried ALL the parents !!!). Or we may just have the party and call it a day.

Anyway again, THANK YOU for your openmindedness and kind, understanding response. If we were to end up taking him out of school this year, I’ll print out your email and stick it on my fridge for moral support – not because you advocate it, but because you say to trust your instinct. Even the few friends I’ve discussed it with – and they’re the ones likely to be more open to alternative options – are talking me into a headspin! If we go ahead, we have to be prepared for a LOT of criticism !!

It’s also so good to hear from somebody who has real understanding of both the trilingual situation and the Italian schooling system. I’d love to hear more about your life, about your boys etc. Anyway I’ll let you know the outcome at this end!

All the best, Katy


16 Claudia June 3, 2013 at 11:50 am

This topic is very familiar to my family as well. Daddy’s Swiss-German, I’m Brazilian. We communicate in English and our 4,5 year old boy speaks the local language – French as well our respective native languages, plus has a good knowledge of English. So, after a lot of thinking and a list of pros and cons ( very similar to Alice’s) , we’ve also decided to send our DS to a bilingual ( French/English) school. He’ll start in August and I can’t help wondering if it’s the ¨best ¨ solution, if he’ll fit in, etc. Reading your comments does help me in that I can see we’re all kind of on the same boat. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts, doubts, trials and experiences.
Warm regards,


17 Maureen August 14, 2013 at 4:17 am

Very interesting article and comments. We’ve put my kids in local Swiss schools and feel comfortable with our decision. My long-term thinking said that they’d be better integrated locally, that they’re taught English and hear it at home, that there’s less flux of kids moving in/out (expat community with international schools move about every three years) and that the cost for international schools is so high. As far as I’m concerned, Switzerland is already multi-cultural, and many of our (local) friends are multinational families that have chosen our community to be their long-term home. (We are an American/German family.) For me, this was maybe the deciding factor — I wanted my kids to have the same sense of home, of roots that I did when I was growing up in the US, just like my husband did growing up in Germany. Language skills you can learn. Sense of community is harder.


18 Kasia Hill August 14, 2013 at 8:16 am

I agree ! Very difficult decision. We made ours half a year ago and are so far very happy with the French/English programme offered at one of the public schools here in Australia. However just like you I had to listen to friends suggesting that kids should go to their local schools and that’s how it “should be!” Good luck to all the brave parents who took that adventurous road !


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