Q. Should we choose a local school for our children, or an English-language international school?

A. This is a common question, as more families are faced with choices of living locally or holding on to international possibilities. It’s also a complicated question, as there are many factors that determine the right answer for any family, and indeed, for any child. Here are some points to consider:

  1. How old is your child and how long will you be in the country?

These are actually separate questions, but connected in the influence over school decisions. Generally, the younger your child is, the more it is worth it to investigate local education. Children who are starting school for the first time are starting at a point where curricular expectations are low (in most schools) and they have time to learn the language before needing to be able to read, write, and learn in the language. If your children are already school-age, the transition can be harder, as they are losing out on content learning while they learn the language. Whether or not it is worth it depends then on how long you intend to be in the country: if you are moving permanently, then it is worth it for your children to learn the language and be able to engage in local schooling opportunities. If you are only planning to live there for 2-3 years, the potential benefits of a minimal amount of schooling in a new language must be balanced against the inevitable set-backs in learning, and also potentially the social challenges for your child. The older a child is, the more their own opinion should count in the decision as well, as they will be the ones doing the hard work; some kids may be up for it, and some may find it just too distressing.

  1. Does your child already have multiple languages?

This question needs to be considered in light of the information above as well as the family language profile. If you are a monolingual family, and will move back to a monolingual environment after your stay abroad, it is necessary for you to focus on continuing to develop your child’s current school language, to ensure a smooth transition when you move home. It’s perfectly feasible for you to do this while your child is learning a new school language as well, but it does require time and effort (for both parents and children!). If you have a more complex family language profile, adding in a new language may well come at the expense of a current language. Each language requires attention to development, and so the more languages you already need to attend to, the more difficult it is to add in another one for a short period of time.

Many families living abroad who are not native-English speakers have chosen English-language schooling for their children, as it is possible to ensure continuity anywhere in the world. This means that the child will have a stable school language, and additional languages at home. If you move frequently, or don’t have firm plans, local-language schooling can be problematic in terms of continuity of education. I don’t see it very often, but I have met families who have moved country and put their children in different language school systems multiple times (new language every 2-4 years) and that is generally not a recipe for academic success.

  1. Does your child have any other challenges that may impact learning?

It is currently the understanding from research that all children have the potential to become bilingual/multilingual. The caveat is that children with educational challenges (speech or language related, ASD, ADHD, dyslexia, etc.) may well need additional support along the way, especially when starting at school-age with a new language, and especially if the challenges are language-related. Whether or not local-language schooling is the right choice for children with additional languages is a very complex question, and can really only be answered on a child/family specific basis. The child’s need for the new language is a key concern. If you have moved permanently, and acquiring this new language will be necessary for your child to integrate into their new home, there is a strong case for making the effort. If you are only planning on a temporary stay, and there is the option for schooling in a family language, this may be a better choice for many children. Another consideration is how well the local school can/will support your child in both learning the language and accessing the content. Some systems are not as well set up for inclusive education, and may not be able/willing to provide your child with the support they will need to be successful. In this case, an international school with better provisions may prove to be a better choice.

As you can see, there is unfortunately no clear and generalisable answer to this question. What is right for your child needs to be based on individual factors, family language factors, and mobility factors. This is why family language planning is such an important process, as it helps you really understand your unique situation and how it influences all your decisions about your family’s bilingual journey.