There is a common presumption among ex-pat families, in particular, that if you have a choice between primary school in the home language and in English, the latter is the better choice. This ties in to the common myth “earlier is always better” for acquiring a new language, especially through immersion. Let’s take a quick look at some facts to better understand the situation:

  1. Years of consistent research shows that children benefit from accessing the early years of education in their strongest (dominant) language.
  2. This is particularly true for literacy; children learn to read and write more easily (and therefore with more pleasure) when the learning happens in their dominant language.
  3. Attitude towards reading has a huge impact on academic success, through primary school, secondary school, and into university.
  4. The strength of a child’s dominant language is predictive of their success in learning English; the stronger their own language skills, the more easily they will be able to learn English.
  5. In repeated studies looking at effectiveness of different forms of immersion education, it was found that students who start immersion programmes at the end of primary or beginning of secondary quickly catch up to students who started at the beginning of primary. The only area where early immersion shows statistically significant benefits (though with a relatively small effect) is accent.

If we take all of these facts together, they do not seem to inherently support the “earlier is better” position. And indeed, this is the case. There is no strong evidence that starting school in English (as an additional language) is better for children than starting in their own language and then transitioning to English, and in fact the evidence leans towards the second option.

The answer to the title question then is clearly “No, early English-language education is not always the best choice.”. For families that have no choice, consider the list above as a list of guidelines to help you support your children while they are going to school in English.

For parents who have a choice, it’s important to really consider the pros and cons of the decision you are making, on the basis of each of your individual children. I had a message a couple of weeks ago from a family I worked with some years ago, and at the time I recommended that they choose the Spanish section of the European School (both parents were Spanish speakers) for early primary, rather than immediate English-language schooling. It was a hard decision for them, as most people were pushing them to go the other way. A few years after their decision, they emailed me to let me know how happy they were with their choice, and how beneficial it has been for their children (the oldest of whom is now also successfully learning English). This family took a risk in going against the tide, and has had no regrets.

The European School system is founded on the principle of home language (dominant language) first and early introduction of a taught L2, with the goal being to graduate all students with a bilingual diploma. Unfortunately, they struggle to meet their goals with some languages, because parents actively choose other schools because they don’t want their children to study in the home language, they want immediate English-language education. The European School of The Hague has had to truncate the Spanish section due to low numbers, despite a large community of Spanish-speaking families in the area. The family who wrote to update me on their story are part of a minority of families, and need to be applauded for their measured and careful approach to developing bilingualism for their children.

I would be delighted to see more international schools take up the European Schools model, at least in nursery and early primary. This would be best practice as supported by language acquisition research, and I believe it would go some way to helping internationally schooled children acclimate to school better, acquire English more easily and continue to develop in their own languages as well.