Q&A: How to choose the main school language for a trilingual child?

by | Jun 4, 2017 | Coaches, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Q&A When a bilingual / multilingual child goes to school, Rita R, School-aged children | 0 comments

How to choose the main school language for a trilingual child?



Dear all,

we are a bilingual family. My husband speaks English to our 3-year-old son, I speak German to him. My husband and I speak English at home, our son speaks German to me and English to my husband. We live in the Netherlands. At daycare our son speaks English and Dutch.

Our son will go to school soon and we can choose for the English or the German section of the European school. The section would represent the first language and after two years a second language (German or English) will be taught. We are now discussing about the best choice for our son to keep all three languages. After school activities are mostly offered in English.

We are both very strong on our points of which section our son should go to, so are looking for some convincing, sound advice from an expert in this area. The school leaves it completely up to us, so not much of an advice there. My arguments are, that German is the more difficult language to acquire, so it should be the section language. We have more family in Germany and I will mostly be involved in school activities and socialising with parents, which still after so many years abroad feels more natural and easier to do in ‘my’ language. Additionally, I think it is easier to reach a very high level of English than it is for German.

My husband however argues, that English is very important all around the world and that it will be more beneficial for our son to speak English at an excellent level. We are very strict in separating languages – our son has started to ask questions in either language and does not accept the ‘other’ parent to answer this question. Even if it is in our own language…

What would your advice be?

Thank you!
Kind regards,


Dear Esther,

Thank you for your question about choosing the school language for your son. You are fortunate to have a choice between German and English, which are the mother tongues of you and your husband.

To start with, I would like to address two things in your message: Firstly, the way children learn to speak a language, or more correctly, acquire it, no language is more difficult than any other for them. The amount of interactive exposure to a language is important, but not the “difficulty” of it as perceived by an adult. Secondly, choosing one or the other of the languages to be the section language does not automatically mean that your son will not reach a high level of fluency in the other.

I understand your preference for German as the section language as you would feel more comfortable in using your mother tongue with other parents and teachers – I however don’t think this should be a factor that weighs too heavily in your decision-making. Likewise, the number of relatives speaking either language is as such not relevant, because your son will no doubt be able to speak the languages of both sides of his extended family.

Based on what you describe, out of the two languages, your son currently gets exposed to German only from you. He uses English with his dad and hears it when you are all together – English is your home language. English is also one of the languages at daycare, so he is probably hearing more English than German at this point.

Should you put him in the English section of the school, his English exposure would increase, and as I understand it, he would not receive any tuition in German until his third year. Any extra-curricular activities would also probably be in English. Keep in mind that his Dutch exposure will also increase over time.

If you want your son to achieve a high fluency in both German and English (and Dutch), then based on the above, it may be more beneficial for him to attend the German section for now, since the balance would tip quite heavily towards English should you choose the English one.

However, you do not mention the level of tuition the children get in the second language. There is a big difference between it being taught as a “foreign” language for couple of hours per week or a more comprehensive teaching approach with, for example, certain subjects taught in it. If the school offers comprehensive tuition also for the second language, then the choice of section is not as important.

What I would recommend you to do is to find out what other options there are for arranging additional varied exposure to the other language. Can you find hobbies or clubs in German for him to attend, should you choose English? What about the media – which language is dominant there? Which language will he most likely have more friends in?

Ultimately it is your choice and you need to decide together which language section you should put your son in. Try not to make this a discussion where you and your husband pitch your own mother tongues against each other, but consider what is the best way for your son to become a fluent speaker of both.

Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!

Kind regards

Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.


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