Q&A: Family language or a third language for a bilingual child’s education?

by | Jul 6, 2017 | Babies, Coaches, Literacy, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Q&A When a bilingual / multilingual child goes to school, Rita R | 0 comments

Family language or a third language for a bilingual child’s education?




I would like to ask for your thoughts on our idea to place our 4-and-a-half-year-old in an English-speaking school. We are a French family of four and after living in francophone countries, we moved to Lithuania last Sept.

My son enrolled in the French school and picked up Lithuanian fairly easily due to the following:
– 20 minutes of Lithuanian class per day
– most of his school mates being Lithuanian speaking (and speaking Lithuanian outside the class)
– him coming home every day at 4 and being looked after by our baby’s nanny who speaks Lithuanian. He developed a good relationship with our younger son’s nanny and she tells us that he understands everything she says and responds well.

Considering how well he’s managed to pick on Lithuanian, we would like to take advantage of living abroad to expose him to an additional language, English. Both my husband and I use English at work and in our social lives here so we could easily help with homework. We are thinking of enrolling him there in September but are still very conflicted about this decision for the following reasons:
– When we moved to Lithuania last Sept, we were coming from an island territory in the South pacific and he had to put a lot of effort into getting used to the change of climate, city, school system, house, social network. The first few weeks/months were hard, he did not want to go to school, was playing alone for a long time. He really likes his school and friends now and I wonder if it is not asking too much from him emotionally.
– He has one school year left before starting primary school and I am wondering if learning to read in English would mean that the rest of his primary school should be in English as well. We are planning to stay for the next 2-4 years in Lithuania at a minimum but it could be that we move elsewhere before that.

At first I thought that we could put him back at the French school for the start of Primary school so that he learns to read in French but that means he will only have a year in English and therefore I think it would be requiring a lot of effort for only a year.

I appreciate all the work you are doing to make multilingual parenting easier and more accessible for families like ours. Thank you very, very much in advance for your feedback.

Best wishes

[mlp_include id=4168]


Dear Blandine,

Thank you for your kind feedback and for your question about choosing the school for your bilingual son.

You have the choice of enrolling him in either a French- or English-speaking primary school. His mother tongue is French and by what you write he picked up Lithuanian very quickly once immersed in at school and having his little brother’s nanny to interact with.

Your question has two aspects: on one hand, it is about your son’s language-learning and on the other about him adjusting into a new school. With regards to adding a third language to his repertoire, I don’t think he would have much problem in acquiring English on top of French and Lithuanian. What you would need to do is to make sure that he also gets continued exposure to and interaction in Lithuanian on a regular basis to maintain and develop the language.

I agree that if you choose to put him in an English school, then I would recommend that you continue his education in the same language. One year at that age would give him a certain level of English skills, but to maintain and improve it, you would need to arrange additional exposure after the year if you want him to become fluent in English. I presume you want him to be literate in French as well, so should you choose the English primary school, that responsibility would fall on you and your husband, or you would need to find external tuition for him in French.

Those are the options when we look at the question purely out of a language-learning point of view. However, the choice of a school never is (and never should be) purely dependent on which language a child will learn by attending it. I presume you have considered both schools and found them suitable for your son?

The question is also whether changing schools and friends would be too big an upheaval for your son. Ultimately, only you and your husband can make this decision. I can only highlight the things you need to take into consideration when making it.

You mention that your son initially found it difficult to fit in in his current school, but that he is now happy to attend and has found friends. Any school change is difficult for a child, but adding a new language to the mix does take it to another level. This said, children do normally adjust very quickly – you mention a couple of weeks, possibly months, in your son’s case. He has also already demonstrated his ability to pick up a new language.

Your son will, in any case, move to a new school after a year – if he were to attend the French primary school, will any of his current friends be there? What about the English primary school – if you were to put him in the English one now, would some (or all) of the pupils go on to attend the primary school in English as well?

There is of course one more aspect to think about. You mention that you will most likely move to a different country within 2-4 years – do you have any idea which country this will be and which language options you would have for your son’s education? If you were to move to a francophone country, the best option would be to continue his education in English to maintain that language. However, should you move to a predominantly English-speaking country, then it would probably be beneficial for him to attend a French-speaking school. So when deciding on the primary school, also consider which options you have with regards to school language once you move.

Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!

Kind regards

[mlp_include id=1663]
[mlp_include id=4349]

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.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.