A bilingual education does more for kids than prepare them for a globalized world; it enriches their mind and social world.
For those of us who came to a second language late in life, being bilingual may seem daunting. But babies are born with the ability to make and hear any sounds from any language in the world, and there are more and more studies that show the advantages of learning multiple languages from as early age as possible.
In Zurich, where a whopping 31% of the city’s population is non-Swiss from a total of 166 different countries, there are ample opportunities to raise bilingual children. And it’s not just about the language, which is a big social component. You want your child to be able to acclimate easily, and settle in with as little disruption in their lives as possible.
Learning a new language: the importance of starting early
Researchers tend to agree that early childhood is the best time to learn a second language. Naja Ferjan Ramirez, a researcher from the University of Washington, writes on Business Insider: “Children who experience two languages from birth typically become native speakers of both, while adults often struggle with second language learning and rarely attain native-like fluency.”
While ‘from birth’ isn’t always possible, young children have surprisingly flexible language abilities; the sooner you introduce them to a second language, the better.
Many programs offer a dual Swiss-English curriculum, where your child can be immersed in both languages to a greater or lesser extent. It adds a social component. There’s an expat community, but there’s not so much a place where Swiss and expats really meld. At school, you really do get this mixture of Swiss-nationals, mixed nationality families and also completely expat families.
In other words, getting your kids enrolled in an international school in Zurich won’t only help your children, it might just have the added perk of helping you reach out to the local community, too.
Babies are the best learning machines ever created
Some parents might wonder: Is my child too young to learn another language? Won’t she or he be confused? Well, in short, no and no. In a recent report from the University of Washington Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), Patricia Kuhl writes: “Science indicates that babies’ brains are the best learning machines ever created, and that infants’ learning is time-sensitive. Their brains will never be better at learning a second language than they are between 0 and 3 years of age.” Some schools, like Obersee Bilingual School, even offer services like bilingual baby-care, in addition to their Pre-K, kindergarten, and upper level schooling.
The advantages of an early English-German education
Beyond the communication and integration reasons mentioned above, there are a lot of reasons to get your kids in bilingual English-German education programs.
Becoming bilingual at an early age:
- Improves executive functioning of the brain. That is, they are able to shift attention, switch between tasks and solve problems more easily.
- Helps develop their ‘theory of mind’, which essentially means they can better understand another person’s perspective
- Has protective effects against cognitive decline with aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease
- Gives them countless opportunities and advantages over monolingual children
… and more.
Research continues, but it’s not all about the science. It’s also just plain… cool. A kindergarten kid, five or six years old, can easily switch from English to German. It’s amazing to think of the intelligence they have to do that.
Get the most out of a bilingual education in Switzerland or Zurich
Of course, you want to feel comfortable with the programme in which you place your kids, and the impact that it has on your home life. Here are some tips:
Find a programme that offers concentrated immersion time to properly live and speak with the languages. In many schools, Pre-K students have a teacher in both English and German who work together, while kindergarten and primary school classes spend a full week of classes in English, and then switch to a full week of classes in German. This means that it’s not just certain subjects that are in a specific language, but all of them.
Encourage them to practice it home. This may be more tricky if you don’t speak the same language, but you can still put on a TV programme, get fun books or games, or arrange play dates in which they use the other language. Let them see that language studies aren’t just something for school – they’re for living, too.
Learn along with them! This is particularly helpful if your kids are learning a language you don’t know, and you can turn it into a shared activity. But even if that’s not the case, you can still study with them. Chances are, if it’s a language you know well, you might never have learned all the grammar rules to help you explain why something is said in one way and not another.
When speaking with various international schools in Zurich, or elsewhere in Switzerland or the rest of the world, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find out why they’re using a given methodology, and what are its benefits. Ask about the social support, and make sure that they’re able to offer individual assistance where needed.