Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa
Advice for Italian, French, English, Spanish young children

Advice for Italian, French, English, Spanish young children

10 Mar 2015

Dear Tracey

My name is SxxxxBxxx and I have heard so many fantastic things of you that I thought you would be the right person to contact for advices. I am not sure if you know Geneva and its Schools. I will try to explain the situation:

We have two kids: Sofia (3 years and 10 months old) and Alessandro (1.7 years old)

My husband (40 yrs) and I (40 yrs) are Italian, and we speak Italian at home between us and with the children
My husband speaks Italian, French, English, Spanish
I speak Italian, French, English and a bit of Spanish

Our nanny (who arrived when Sofia was 3) speaks Spanish and Italian – However, as Sofia goes to the crèche full time, she does not interact too much with the nanny, who is taking care of the younger child.

TRACEY: But does the nanny, in her limited contact with the kids, speak in Spanish? It would be better to speak her native Spanish than to speak poor Italian.

Community: mostly Italian (In Italy on vacation: grandparents, relatives and friends. Also in Geneva, we have a very big Italian community that we see constantly)

TRACEY: So if you were to compare the kids’ vocabulary, how many words would you say they have in each?

Sofia was born in Geneva and attended the local Swiss crèche full time (from 9 to 5 pm), 5 days/week, from age 6 months until now (she is almost 4).

TRACEY: So you would you say her French is better than her Italian? Would you say it is her best language?

Starting from January this year, at age of almost 4, in addition to the French crèche (4 days/week) she started going once a week at the English crèche (Gymboree).

TRACEY: This is ok if you want to elevate her linguistic awareness, and to have basic vocabulary, but it will not prepare her for school (pre-literacy, for example).

In the First Window, Sofia was exposed to:

  • Italian (from parents, since birth)
  • French (from crèche – from month 6)

She is now entering in the second window of opportunity and she has:

  • some exposure to English (Gymboree, once a week, from 9 am to 2 pm; no other opportunities)
  • continues to be exposed to French (crèche, few friends,  and environment),
  • continues to be exposed to Italian (home, relatives, parents, friends, basically the community)
  • has some exposure to Spanish (nanny, but not full time as the nanny is more focused on the younger child)

Sofia is right-handed and I think she has an average aptitude for languages.

Personality wise she is average (not very shy not very outgoing)

She speaks French (at the crèche and with few friends) but Italian is her preferred language ( friends, relatives, parents, etc.). She says few words in Spanish with the nanny. In English only “yes” “bye Bye” and count 0 to 5.

TRACEY: Interesting as she spends the majority of time in French – this means she really cherishes the time she has with you and your husband. What does she speak with her brother?

We plan to stay in Geneva long term BUT because we work for the UN system, it may well be that we will need to move abroad.
TRACEY: Have you thought of about where you might go, and if your kids will have the language skills for an easy integration?

Here what we would like for Sofia:

  1. to acquire literacy skills and speak fluently in English, French AND eventually Italian
  2. to be in touch with the local people, and Swiss life in Geneva (so I am not particularly keen on international school and local smaller school would be nicer with this respect),
  3. So French is the priority, but English is important as well. In fact, to be able to have access to the Swiss university in the future, her French needs to be excellent

I would like to make the right choice for Sofia and we are flexible to go to any school in Geneva (my organization is paying 75% of the fee!), and I need your help to identify the best strategy

There are two options left now

  1. from age 4 to 6 attend English school (e.g. British school of Geneva, or others) which has to advantages:
    (a) learn English by immersion (the school teaches one hour a day of French as well, to keep her French alive!) , (b) - it is more convenient (closer to the place where we live); and at the age of 6-7 years old I would move her to the Bilingual (French-English) primary school (e.g. Ecolint Le Chat)
  2. the other option is at the age of 4 to start immediately with the bilingual programme (e.g. Ecole “La Decouverte”, the Swedish School bilingual French-English; “Petitpoly” in Ferney-Voltaire, Ecolint Le Chat)

TRACEY: As mentioned in my last email, if bilingualism is the goal, the earlier the better.

Which of the two options would you recommend?

I visited Ecolint “Le Chat” and I was surprised to learn that from the age of 7, the same teacher teaches French and English to the same class. This is not a good idea. So, no change in place and person. Just time…When I asked why, they said that the distinction of person/time/place among languages is important when kids are very young, and then become unnecessary afterwards.

From last email:

So we have considered 3 options for the time being:

Option 1 - public Swiss school + English class once a week (Wednesday afternoon) (problem: is one afternoon/week enough to become bilingual?)  what do you think?

TRACEY: Do you have permission to allow Sofia to attend the Lycee International in Ferney, perhaps? The French program is very strong, and the bilingual English program has a good reputation as well. There is also an option in Nyon.

Silvia: Yes, I checked and they accept students from Geneva if they have space available (they prioritize students from French system living in France)

TRACEY: I recommend you visit with Sofia and see what she thinks of the school, the teachers and the school day structure.

Option 2 - just for the primary classes (4-10 years old), send her to the bilingual (40%-60%) programme in an international School and then move her to a Swiss or French programme afterwards (problem: would she be able to adapt to the local Swiss or French school after 5 years in a more “lay-back” private school?

TRACEY: I am not sure what you mean by laid-back; if she attends the PYP (Primary Years Programme) of the IB, or if she is the more traditional part of the school (French side), I think she will be fine.

Silvia: OK. I just thought that the PYP was more relaxed and soft like “Montessori style” (which, by the way, I like very much as I attended Montessori from age 3 to 14!) and that the student could potentially have hard time to adapt when moving from a private school where the child is the center of the universe to a more rigid Swiss/French system. But maybe this is a misconception…

TRACEY: I think the mentality in French schools is different. Again, Lisa Cirieco is a fabulous resource—she is in Bellevue and has actually lived this process. Her husband is Italian, she is American and her three boys went to the local Swiss schools, and had Italian as extra classes and English at home with Lisa…contact her!

Option 3 -

From age 4 to 6 : 2 years of English school (in order to learn English for immersion)
From age 6 to 11: move her to a bilingual school (more French then English)
From 11- 18: Swiss or French public system (+ keeping her English through classes, friends)

In general, if your goal is a balanced bilingual, you should begin as early as possible.
In general, the earlier the better.
In general, multiliteracy skills should be taught/divided by person (a different person), place (a different place—school or classroom), and time (meaning different years, or at least morning versus afternoon).

When is the best time to learn writing in French? and In English?

TRACEY: Multiliteracy skills are always a challenge, and I have a big question about Italian? What role does Italian play in your lives?

I do not think we will be back in Italy. OK, so literacy skills in Italian are the least of the priorities (1. French; 2. English; 3. Italian, correct?)

Silvia: I would like Sofia to learn to write and read fluently in Italian but maybe this can be postponed a bit? she is fluent and has a good Italian accent and she could do some Italian literacy classes later on, when she has learnt French and English. What do you think? Or we should teach her at home? If so, when?

TRACEY: Depending on the school system you choose, you can make a strategic choice. For example, if the school system starts teaching literacy skills around 6 years-old, you can work on Italian at home before she starts in French. However, if you send her to a bilingual school, you won’t have the space for Italian until a bit later. When she is “settled” in basic literacy skills in French you can introduce literacy skills in Italian. This does not mean that you should stop reading, however – Reading to her in Italian is a great way to maintain language development (vocabulary), but don’t mix literacy skill training.

TRACEY: If your priority is French, begin with French, however you should also think about the importance of the methods that accompany the language. The French system of teaching literacy is very different from the way English literacy is taught. Normally, good bilingual programs must separate person, place and time to be successful.

Better to have a full immersion in French and then move to English or the opposite?

TRACEY: The very best programs are dual-immersion (both languages simultaneously).

Or, may be the bilingual classes in the years 4-10 maybe a better option, and then move her to the English or French curricula?

TRACEY: Start the earlier the better. If bilingualism is your goal then you should start with dual language exposure (bilingual program).

P.S. I am at page 37 of your book “raising multilingual children”. Very interesting! She is still in the second window! There is hope!

TRACEY: It is wonderful that you are thinking about this and making plans and you seem to have considered various options. I recommend you look into Lisa Cirieco’s book on all of the bilingual schools in the area; this will help you see the range of options, which might be wider than the international schools versus Swiss school options mentioned so far. Let me know what you are thinking along these lines and we can talk further. In general, if you have decided that French is the overall priority, you can be sure that the environment will assure oral French, but you must be in an academic setting to have good written French.

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About Tracey

Tracey is a globally recognized educational leader who professes the philosophy that change starts with one: one student, one teacher.


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