With four national languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh) enshrined in the Swiss Constitution, deciding on a school for your children in Switzerland inevitably carries the added choice of whether to educate them in a bilingual or monolingual environment. Of course, this decision should be highly personalised to the child in question and factors such as their age, previous schooling, temperament, and academic ambitions should be taken into account. Where parents find it is appropriate to enter their child into a bilingual system, researchers and education experts agree that there are enormous benefits to be reaped, above and beyond the enviable gift of speaking two languages.
In the Swiss national schools, lessons are taught in French, Swiss German or Italian, depending on the canton. High German is also taught, so that Swiss German speakers are effectively bilingual. This means that expats usually gravitate towards an international school or a bilingual school. Previously, international schools in Switzerland tended to offer a monolingual, international syllabus, for example, an English one. If parents wanted a bilingual experience for their child, they would have to opt for a bilingual school. It has now become normal for both types of schools to provide the opportunity to learn in dual or even multiple languages. At an international school, kids taking the monolingual curriculum may learn side by side with those in the bilingual system.
What exactly is a bilingual education?
The essence of a bilingual education is not simply the process of learning and studying two languages as subjects; it is the incorporation of the language into the actual teaching process. A bilingual education means studying your science, maths, art, and drama lessons in two languages. In this way it teaches the application of languages better than any once-a-week Spanish lesson could.
Outside specific schools, the most common way that children are exposed to a bilingual environment is in the home, when parents come from different countries with different native languages. Many families who have emigrated from one country to another have a bilingual life by default.
Some countries actually operate bilingual educational environments as a matter of course, most obviously French Canadian or, in a more limited way, in Welsh and English education. In the US, where there is a large Hispanic community, educationalists are actively promoting dual language models in some schools. In the Netherlands, some schools provide a bilingual education in Arabic, Berber and Turkish, whilst in Hong Kong lessons are taught in both Cantonese and English.
The difference between learning a language in set lessons and learning it in an immersive environment is that students are more deeply locked into the language and its everyday use, ideally from an early age. They develop their skills more organically than learning from a set curriculum, as is the case for most monolingual children.
5 Ways Children Benefit from a Bilingual Education
A large amount of research is being done to discover how being exposed to a bilingual education benefits individuals as they grow up.
Evidence from recent research is beginning to show that if you are exposed to a bilingual education and grow up with a high degree of literacy in both languages, you are more likely to develop better cognitive skills that provide advantages for learning and progress in later life. Although many parents worry about their child ending up with weaker skills in both languages and feeling confused, according to the New York Times, the conflict caused by learning two languages early on is actually a good thing:
“This interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”
Pre-school children learning in a bilingual environment tend to be more flexible in their cognitive behaviour and begin to understand more deeply at an early age the subtleties of how language works. This is thought to be one of the reasons why those exposed to a bilingual education develop better mental acuity early on, growing the tools to solve complex mental puzzles. Other research suggests that bilingual students are better at processing sound and therefore are much more likely to pay attention in class, whatever the subject.
There are, of course, many cultural benefits to having a bilingual education. Moving between two different worlds means children come into contact and identify with the traditions and identities of each one. This is particularly the case with immigrant families and expat communities, where children may grow up with dual cultural identities.
The added level of communication skills and the necessity of developing keen listening skills can also lead to improved social competence that can help bilinguals to adapt more easily to different multi-cultural environments, as well as making them more attuned to subtle cultural sensitivities.
Financial and carer-related benefits
Being able to speak proficiently in two or more languages has always been hugely beneficial across different professions, but is increasingly so in the modern, “globalised” world that we hear so much about.
The ability to adapt to and absorb different cultures is in itself a precious commodity to companies operating across multiple countries, with clients in different locations. Within these global companies, employees with multiple languages are likely to be valued more, and often paid more. In these huge companies, there are often opportunities to work in their offices in around the world, usually an incredibly rewarding experience.
Even if the corporate world is not for them, with two languages, they will rarely be out of a job. From the creative industries to the charity world, companies want employees with an innate sensitivity to cultural trends, to be comfortable interacting with a variety of people, and to have great communication skills. They can also feel safe in the knowledge that they can always support themselves through translation work.
You would expect those with a bilingual education to be higher academic achievers than their monolingual peers, on average. Research at Cambridge University adds to the evidence that bilinguals have the edge in cognitive ability, social interaction and communication skills. It is no wonder then, that universities themselves prize language skills highly in those applying.
Long-term health benefits
There is a growing body of research into how the cognitive benefits of bilingualism extend to fighting off neurological diseases. For example, researchers in Wales are looking at whether being educated in both English and Welsh can help delay dementia and even Parkinson’s disease in later life.
Wales is not the only place where research into bilingualism and long-term mental health is of interest. Research in California found that, as well as earning more money, on average,
“…individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.”
Is a bilingual education in Switzerland the right choice for your child?
In many countries, there are huge barriers to introducing a bilingual educational strategy. It is therefore one of the great opportunities to be capitalised on when uprooting your family from the comfort of your native land, and bringing them over to a multilingual country like Switzerland. If kids are young enough, and to a certain extent, tough enough, then a bilingual education can clearly be a fantastic opportunity.
However, placing your child in a bilingual environment is not a ‘no-brainer’, by any means. For example, if your child is over a certain age, or if they are reticent or particularly shy or disruptive, it may be counter-productive and push them beyond their limits. Although mostly children are incredibly adaptable with sponge-like brains ripe for picking up languages, if they are thrust into this environment when they are not suited to it, it may backfire and be detrimental. If this happens, far from developing the intended superior listening and communication skills, or the much hoped-for academic and professional boost, they can actually start to play up in class, or stop listening altogether.
Having said that, if parents have taken a considered decision to go for a bilingual education, most children can really thrive, especially given enough patience, encouragement and support along the way. Most educators agree that starting at a young age is preferable, because younger kids acquire the skills more quickly, are less self-conscious and have fewer important exams and other pressures. The preceding environment is also a consideration, in terms of whether they have always been taught in one or a few languages, or whether their parents are multilingual anyway, in which case they will likely take to the new environment like a duck to water. Long-term plans should also be considered, such as how long you plan to stay in the country, as it will take some time for them to gain the language skills. In this case, going through the adjustment period is worth it if you are there for a few years, but probably not if the child will be moved again sooner than they can feel the benefits of learning the skills.
Therefore, a teenager who has spent their entire school career in a monolingual environment is probably not the best candidate to succeed after a sudden transition into a bilingual one. However, where international schools will accept monolingual children into bilingual streams up to the right age (this should be discussed with the teachers), can offer the right curricula to suit your child, and take into account their past experience and future goals, it may be the best thing you could do to help set them up for an exciting, intellectually stimulating, socially rewarding and global life.