Education bilingual education

The benefits and complexities of a bilingual education

In Switzerland alone, there are four national languages for a population of 8.57 million. As well as German, French, Italian and Romansh, many expats use English and other languages to bridge the communication gap. In fact, with nearly two thirds of the Swiss population using two or more languages at least once a week, being multilingual in some form is accepted as the norm in Switzerland. 

For kids lucky enough to have two or more languages at their fingertips, or for those arriving in Switzerland hoping to build on a second language, there are plenty of opportunities in Swiss international schools to develop their skills. 

But is it worth all the hard work? And can schools really integrate bilingualism without disrupting the academic and social rhythm of normal school life? We’ve spoken to some schools to find out. 

Can kids joining with one weaker language ever really become fully bilingual?

This is a question frequently posed to school by parents joining the expat community. Daniel Ng, Head of Primary School at Obersee Bilingual School suggests that “being successful in a bilingual environment does not require fluid language competencies in both languages. There are many successful graduates who have done well despite joining a bilingual school halfway into their schooling career.” 

However, there are a number of factors which schools agree can affect the outcome for individual students. For example, age, motivation to learn, academic capacity and family support. The Swiss International School (SIS) reassures parents that “using the immersion method over a number of years results in near-native fluency in the second language,” although “the best results are achieved through extensive early immersion prior to the start of formal schooling.” 

School support is of course also paramount in helping kids to accelerate their language skills to a suitable level for learning. At the Institut Montana Zugerberg, teachers quickly assess new joiners to see if language support beyond mainstream lessons will be needed. Students can then get help from an additional teacher in the classroom, or in more severe cases, students may have half of their lessons taught by an extra teacher outside of the classroom. 

Of course, for some kids joining schools for a short amount of time only, or at an age where full bilingualism is unlikely, it’s important to provide an environment where they can learn the language at their own pace without too much pressure. At Haut-Lac International Bilingual School they emphasise that there is “no pressure” to move into the bilingual stream, with many students starting in the Anglophone stream, where they do one French class a day, before ultimately moving into the bilingual stream only when they are ready and keen to do so. 

Do bilingual kids do better at school? 

Evidence gathered from multiple countries does show that being bilingual can set you up with some advantages in the classroom. Studies have shown that bilingual children may have better short-term and working memories than monolingually schooled children. This means bilingual kids should be able to hold on to more of what they hear in class, to translate into long-term learnings – an excellent foundation for academic success. 

Degrees of bilingualism and creative thinking also appear to be positively correlated, and multilinguals also frequently excel at problem solving versus their monolingual counterparts. They can also race ahead with literacy from a young age, having mastered the basics such as deciphering word structure and building a varied vocabulary early on as a result of hearing multiple languages from a young age. 

All in all, a bilingual upbringing seems to set you up with the foundations to make a real success of school. In fact, a US study showed that overall, students in dual-language schools had better academic results and fewer behavioural issues than those learning in just one language. 

Is it hard to make friends when the second language is weaker?

Absolutely not. At the International School of Schaffhausen, which has a bilingual program in its Early Learning Centre and Primary School, the children communicate in whichever language suits best at that moment: “In our international environment with 35 different nationalities we rarely see friendship groups based on language or national background. The kids easily switch from one language to another, sometimes even mid-sentence.” Daniel Ng adds that “children by default are very caring. We often observe children speak the language that the new child who just joined is more comfortable in.”

In the long term, the gift of intimately understanding more than one culture through being bilingual, can set kids up for building wider and more diverse friendship networks right through into adult life. 

How do different schools approach dual language teaching?

It goes without saying that it’s a huge task to coordinate bilingual teaching at any age, but a challenge which SIS claims is fully worthwhile due to how it enriches the lives of the students, teachers, administration and school management. 

Many schools switch daily or weekly between languages to ensure equal exposure. For example, at the Institut Montana Zugerberg for example, 50% of the curriculum is taught in English, and the rest in German.

Similarly, at Haut-Lac International Bilingual School, equal immersion in both English and French is also used to build the students’ language skills. The school explains: “At infant and primary level, students attend classes on a one day-one language basis, alternating between French and English on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays are taught in English and French on an equal basis throughout the school year. Lower Secondary students study Science, Maths, History and Geography in English or French, alternating the tuition language of each subject every semester to develop a good knowledge of all subjects in both languages in preparation for a bilingual IB Diploma or Career-Related course. Diploma or Career-Related students, who wish to obtain a bilingual qualification, build their own customised bilingual programme from a rich offering of subjects both in English and in French.” The school also has intensive integration programs for those joining without knowledge of the second language.” The school also has intensive integration programs for those joining without knowledge of the second language. 

True immersion is also valued at SIS, where this method allows children to “learn unconsciously, lose their initial inhibitions – and allow the foreign language to become second nature.” They explain: “Children begin by developing a passive understanding of the language, achieved through the use of pictures, gestures and symbols, for example. Then, they gradually begin to actively use the second language. In other words, the foreign language is acquired in a similar way to the mother tongue – with the child’s linguistic development and knowledge of the world progressing hand in hand.”

At the International School of Schaffhausen, there is an emphasis on “team teaching” wich allows teachers to build strong relationships with the children and the families in their dominant language, ensuring no one falls behind. Working together, teachers try to ensure a smooth learning process for kids as they switch between languages. Terra Nova Bilingual School, has found that something as simple as using the exact same textbooks for both German and English Maths teaching has strengthened this sense of smooth transition between subjects for their students. 

These complex systems allow language learning and standard curriculum to exist in harmony, with the flexibility that it fosters in the kids becoming second nature as they look to life after school.

What are the advantages for school-leavers?

Of course, knowing more than one language can be a huge plus in any career. Opportunities for travel, doors opening to sectors from hospitality to finance, the advantages of being able to communicate fluently with colleagues and clients in multiple countries is a gift. And beyond this, bilinguals may also carry skills which set them apart from the crowd. Bilinguals are frequently shown to outperform monolinguals in their executive brain function. This controls actions such as task switching, paying attention, and memory. It’s easy to see how bilingualism trains your brain in this area: remembering to speak to your parent in one language and your teacher in another from a young age is no mean feat!

Haut-Lac International Bilingual School says that bilingualism is “an extraordinary asset” when it comes to ‘the next step’ because it opens up so many avenues for consideration: “Students who have a good grasp or fluency in French can apply to many Swiss, French or Canadian universities (although there are also English courses available in those countries) but there is also the option of the English-speaking world to choose from. Being able to discuss one’s bilingualism and the advantages it has bestowed upon them also helps students to write interesting and appealing personal statements and CVs.”

Undoubtedly, for those entering the job market for the first time, being bilingual not only tells potential employers that you’re a talented linguist, but also suggests flexibility, an ability to think outside the box, cultural understanding…the list goes on!   

So is it the right choice for my child?

Being bilingual is a gift which has so many benefits throughout school, career and even into old age. But for kids with one weaker language, or joining school further along in their education, it’s a decision which should be made only after really exploring each individual school’s methodology in getting everyone up to speed, and ensuring no one, and no subject can slip through the cracks. Don’t be afraid to ask detailed questions to understand for example which language your child will end up using for exams. Being bilingual can unlock so many benefits while living abroad, but feeling happy, on top of work, and included socially are also vital for kids settling into expat life. 



2 Content and Foreign Language Integrated Learning: Contributions to … By Yolanda Ruiz de Zarobe






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