Q&A: How to choose the school language for a bilingual child in a multilingual society?

by | Apr 20, 2017 | Coaches, Q&A When a bilingual / multilingual child goes to school, Rita R, School-aged children | 1 comment

How to choose the school language for a bilingual child in a multilingual society?




I am from a small town in South Africa where the two dominant languages are English and Afrikaans. I have been English my whole life but married an Afrikaans man. We have a two-year-old who has been exposed to both languages from birth but he predominantly speaks English.

The better schools here are Afrikaans school so we have decided to send him to an Afrikaans nursery (since he has turned 2) and speak English at home, hoping he will pick up both languages enough to be fully bilingual. Are we making a mistake and will we confuse him?

If he learns things at school should I just spend the time teaching him the same things at home in English? I don’t want this to be to his detriment and English is a world-renowned language so I would rather not make a mistake and he struggles with English.

Please help,
A concerned mom


Dear Concerned Mom

Thank you for your question about choosing the school language for your son. You are in the fortunate position of having two languages in the community and even have the opportunity to choose which language your son goes to nursery and school in.

A school choice is an important decision for a child and should first and foremost be made based on the quality, reputation and suitability of the school – the school language should be taken into account once the first three criteria have been considered. Based on your message, you have done this and found the Afrikaans school to be the best choice, and I can only congratulate you on finding the right school for your son.

You are not going to confuse your son by putting him in an Afrikaans school, on the contrary, this will most likely be his best bet to become fully bilingual. You can teach him the same things in English at home in parallel if you want, but you do not have to make this a strict schedule. Natural discussion about the things he is learning at school is equally fine or even concentrating on different topics. There are also lots of high-quality English learning resources available online which you can use to support your son’s English. I often recommend British Council’s site which has different resources for different ages.

Once your son starts school, there will be certain subjects where you (or your husband) will have to use Afrikaans to help him – for example spelling and maths to some extent. This is also fine, switching between languages is the norm in a bilingual society and will again not confuse your son. In other topics you can still help him in English – translating tasks from one language to another often clarifies things and helps solving them.

English may be more widely spoken and used across the world, but that does not make it any more valuable or important than Afrikaans, which is language that is entwined with your son’s heritage and an important part of his identity.

Wishing you a successful bilingual 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.

1 Comment

  1. Andrew

    Research conducted among children in Wales shows that sending children to a Welsh-medium nursery school does not hold back their development in English. If anything, it benefits it, especially in areas where Welsh is a strong community language.


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