Choosing a school abroad: local or international?
Every once in a while I get emails from people (friends and strangers; usually Americans moving overseas) asking for advice on choosing between a local or international school for their children. Here are some factors to consider when making that decision, based on my own experience here in Finland (Americans, English spoken at home, living here for the foreseeable future). This advice is based on the assumption that a local school would be using the local language, and an international school would be using English.
1. How old is your child? This is the first thing I would recommend thinking about, because it may make the decision very easy, one way or the other. Generally speaking, the older your child is, the harder it will be for her to adjust to a local school in a foreign language. It's hard to pinpoint an exact cutoff age, but if you are a fan of the critical period hypothesis (or even a gentler "optimal" period hypothesis), you're looking at anything older than 11-13 possibly being too old to be able to quickly adjust to school in a foreign language. If your child is younger than that, take a look below at some of the other factors to consider when making your decision. If your child is older than that, your decision may have just been made for you.
2. How long will you be staying in the country? This is another big factor that might make your decision easier. Generally speaking, if you will only be in the country for a year or less, I would recommend sending your kid to an international school rather than a local school. The reason for this is that it is likely to take the better part of a school year for your child to adjust, linguistically. There will be lots of hard days (weeks...) and by the time things are just starting to get comfortable, and all that hard work is paying off...it will be time to leave. The first year of school in a foreign language can be so disruptive - socially, emotionally, educationally - and to leave before being able to fully reap the rewards could be difficult and disappointing.
Before I move on to other, lesser factors to consider, let me just add that there are absolutely exceptions to the above two pieces of advice. If you have a kindergartener, for example (quite young, able to learn languages relatively easily, etc.) and you are only staying in the foreign country for a year, I think that could work. She is likely to adjust to the school/foreign language quickly, especally at such a low grade level, and a year of school at that age, even if it is a bit disruptive, is unlikely to have horrible effects on the rest of her educational career. Similarly, if your child is 12 or 13 but you are moving to a new country for the rest of the foreseeable future, you might need to buckle down and put her in a local school to encourage the integration process and give her the best foundation for secondary and tertiary education in that country.
3. What is your child's temperament? Does she adjust well to new surroundings? Does she make friends easily? You may find yourself leaning toward one option or another for social reasons, rather than educational or linguistic ones. Kids who make friends easily will probably continue to do so even in a foreign-language setting; kids who have trouble thriving in new settings may need that extra boost of at least being able to use their native language when navigating an unfamiliar place.
4. How is your child doing in school? This is another factor that could tip you one way or the other. Strong students can afford to lose a little time (even months) while adjusting to a new language in a new school. Weaker students may not be able to catch up, or may feel defeated if, on top of constant academic struggles, they now have to worry about language difficulties as well. When you are considering this factor, be sure to take into account any differences between your current school system and the one in the destination country. In our case, this worked in our favor: both girls ended up "repeating" a grade when we moved to Finland since the age cutoffs were so different. This gave us a little bit of breathing room and a less stressed timeline for them to adjust to the new language and school.
5. Is there a third option? It's possible that a third option exists for you, likely in the form of an English/local language bilingual school. If you discover that there is a bilingual school available at your destination, I highly recommend that you seriously consider it. A bilingual school has the potential to combine the benefits of a local school with the linguistic familiarity and comfort of an international school. It may give your child the opportunity to have a few lessons per day in English, giving her a respite from the foreign language and a chance to shine in those early, difficult days. But at the same time, your child can develop foreign language skills in an academic environment. If you stay in the country for more than a few years, your child will also benefit from developing not only BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) in both languages, but also the extremely valuable CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). CALP in English is a common casualty of native English speakers completing their schooling in a foreign language, since it's not something that is learned naturally at home, even if you speak English as a family.
6. How important is it to you that your kids learn the local language? Do not make all your plans based on the assumption that you can put your kids in the international school because they'll learn the local language "on the playground." This was said to me several times when we were making this decision for ourselves in 2015, and I'm glad I didn't listen to it. Now in 2018, with the kids almost done with their third year of school, it is clear to me that they actually would NOT have learned Finnish just on the playground. If it is very important to you that your kids learn the local language, you either need to put them in a local or bilingual school, or put them in the international school but make a conscious effort to immerse them in situations outside of school (clubs, activities, playgroups, church) where they will hear and speak the local language.
7. Are there family issues that need to be taken into consideration? An international move will already be a time of great upheaval for your family. For some families, including one more big change in the mix (enrolling the kids in local school) will be just a blip among everything else; for other families, an additional significant linguistic change could put everyone over the edge. Is there a career change involved in this move? Is it a happy move, a traumatic move, long-awaited, or unexpected? Are there existing cultural or familial ties to the new country? Will one or both parents (or neither!) be able to devote significant time to easing the school transition? Try to avoid developing tunnel vision on this issue: take a look at the wider family dynamics and stressors and see if that helps you make your decision.
In conclusion, remember that whatever decision you make, it can be changed, whether it's the day before school starts (as we did!) or a year or two after you've settled in. Kids grow and change, culture shock fades, educational needs shift. When the pressure of choosing a school for your kid gets to be too much, calm yourself with the idea that you can try it for a year, and then revisit the issue.