How much exposure do kids need to learn a new language?

(27 Posts)
dippywhentired Thu 23-Feb-12 11:51:15

We're in Switzerland, not sure for how long. My eldest DD is 4 but because of her birthday is too young for Kindergarten this year. As she would have started in Reception in UK this year, we decided to put her in the International school. She has been there since August, loves it, is enjoying learning, reading, etc. but hasn't leant any German. Initially, we were only planning on staying for 2 years, but this could be extended and we may want her to go into the Swiss system the year after next (into Grade 1). My DH thinks she should go to Kindergarten in the summer so she can become fluent. I don't agree as that would mean her going from full-time school to just mornings of playing, and if we do go back to UK in a couple of years, she will be very behind. I am proposing that she stays where she is for the mornings (where she's happy, learning, etc), but goes to a nursery a couple of afternoons, does a sport's club and something like Scouts. We have also started putting German TV on instead of CBeebies. Will this be enough? All thoughts/ experiences welcome!

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Thatisnotitatall Thu 23-Feb-12 13:25:24


I'm afraid I don't think that will be nearly enough for her to become fluent and be able to keep up in school, assuming you speak English at home, although it will be enough for her to pick up some German (or French, whichever part you are in).

I have an English friend whose DD went to KiGa from age 2-5 and still wasn't fluent, as she wasn't a very sociable child (perfectly nice little girl but more inclined to play alone) and she still needed a lot of help (which the Kindergarten provided) in her last year of Kindergarten and is getting ongoing help now at school.

Even a child who is naturally sociable, talkative and good at languages will need at least 6 months of Kindergarten to approach fluence I think, probably longer...

My DD picked up a lot of German in the playground, toddlers group, and from the in-laws in the 18 months she was at home with me after we moved here but before starting Kiga (DH GErman but we chose to stick with English at home for long term reasons), but her German was still behind her English until she'd been at KiGa at least a year, and all her friends were and are German speakers.

Sorry, not the answer you want - you have to decide what your priorities are I guess (learning the language or keeping up with her UK age group peers)

mousymouseafraidofdogs Thu 23-Feb-12 13:29:55

as you speak english at home and her exposure is relatively little, I think school would be quite difficult for her.
swiss schools are very full on from the first day, very different to the english system. also, language means interaction, watching tv is not interactive enough.
kindergarten is a good idea, you can still do some reading at home.

dippywhentired Thu 23-Feb-12 13:44:13

Thanks for your answers, not what I was hoping to hear, but good to find out now!

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Longtime Thu 23-Feb-12 15:56:34

Although I'm in Belgium and not Switzerland, I second what's being said on here. If you're definitely going back to the UK, it will be very hard for her to keep up any German once back anyway so all your efforts may have been for nothing. My three dcs are fluent but still, even though we've lived her all their lives, I notice the difference between them and their peers. They are 23, 21 and 12!!! Ok, we moved the eldest two into the British system and they went to uni in England but even with my 12 year old dd who is still in the Belgian system, she is finding French in secondary school a challenge because she has no adult vocab outside of school, a vocab that she is now expected to have.

dippywhentired Thu 23-Feb-12 18:29:07

Thanks for your views - I think that as we don't plan on living here beyond another 2-3 years, it is fairly pointless to disrupt her now when she's so happy where she is. Especially as she'll forget it when we go home as she'll still be too young to really keep it going. If we were here indefinitely, it'd be different. Now to try and convince DH!

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mockingjay Fri 24-Feb-12 00:07:04

I learnt German aged 6, it took me about a year in a wholly German school to become fluent. Was okish after about 6 months.

There is a bit of a myth about children learning languages very easily. It is easier for them than adults, but certainly not as easy as people would have you believe.


Bonsoir Fri 24-Feb-12 07:34:57

If you are intending to return to the UK in a year or two, I really wouldn't bother sending your DD to Swiss school. She will expend a lot of energy learning German (probably Swiss German) which she won't expend learning (and Swiss school is slow off the mark with learning) and will be very, very behind in English when you go back and promptly forget all her (Swiss) German.

juneau Fri 24-Feb-12 07:41:22

If you're only staying for a short time I think I'd keep her in the international school as long as you can afford it. There is no point her learning Schweitzer Deutsch, no one else speaks it anywhere, and she'll be behind academically if she goes to Swiss Kindergarten. If you were staying long-term it would be another matter.

mousymouseafraidofdogs Fri 24-Feb-12 07:41:33

do you know for sure that you are returning?
just saying because we were supposed to return after 3 years and nearly 8 years later we are still abroad...

Bonsoir Fri 24-Feb-12 09:44:35

I know native speakers of Swiss German who live outside Switzerland who don't even bother to pass on their MT to their children.

unobtanium Fri 24-Feb-12 10:04:28

On the other hand there is the argument about the pathways that are opened up in the brain at this age when a new language is acquired, regardless of whether or not that language is retained.

Like the other posters though, I feel that the arguments for keeping her where she is outweigh this consideration, especially given your plan to leave Switz soon... plus, in a Swiss school she would probably be learning a mixture of Swiss German and German-German... confusing and not very useful.

Mine did kinderkrippe for two years in Zurich, and can just about remember how to say "cake"... However they did acquire French very quickly subsequent to that, and I cannot say how much this was due to the "pathways" theory and how much due to the fact that both their parents are keen on languages...

smupcakes Fri 24-Feb-12 12:39:24

Seems mad to worry about her keeping up with her UK peers, learning a second language fluently will infinitely benefit her all round development significantly more than UK nursery ever could Imvho

Longtime Fri 24-Feb-12 13:21:01

smupcakes, unfortunately it's not as simple as that. All of my dcs were miserable when they first started school in a language they couldn't understand. We're here forever so had to do it but it's not fun in the beginning and, as mockingjay said, it's a bit of a myth about children learning languages very easily. It takes ages to build up their vocabulary so that they can converse on a par with their peers, just as it takes a child to do the same in their own mother tongue. It all depends on the child of course but I wouldn't do it. Happiness is more important than having a second language.

Bonsoir Fri 24-Feb-12 13:21:02

smupcakes - it really isn't that straightforward! If a child does its early years education in another language and culture, it will not make as much progress in his/her MT as if he/she were in the home country, plus the skills taught in early years are very different from one culture to another. The benefits of learning Swiss German are pretty small anyway, unless you are going to live your life in Switzerland, and it is a language that no-one is going to be able to keep up when they move on.

beresh Fri 24-Feb-12 13:43:46

If you want to keep your options open for going into the Swiss system I'd go for the kindergarten route and homeschool/do classes in the afternoons to keep up the English reading/writing/maths. If you're definitely going back within 2 years I'd stay put.

It's worked well for my DD - she did reception in the UK, then 2nd year Kindergarten in Zurich. The first 6 months were really hard because of the language but it's long forgotten now. She's in Grade 2 and it's going well, fluent in High and Swiss German and she's kept up her English too.

We also don't know when we're going back to the UK, but I'd still have no regrets about her doing kindergarten/swiss school as she's had a great experience. They do learn a lot, it's far more than just playing and she has lots of friends in the neighbourhood.

dippywhentired Fri 24-Feb-12 13:49:19

Have just spent an hour talking to her teacher at school and he said that her confidence and self-esteem has improved no end since August, and in his opinion she could be set back in her emotional/ social development if she were to go into the Swiss system. (Unless we intend to stay long-term, which would be different). Academically, he thinks she'd be ok, but I think her happiness is more important. She is also exposed to German as they have lessons at school and all her class-mates are German-speaking so she hears them chatting together, etc. So, am hoping that even if she doesn't become fluent, the 'pathways' may have started in her brain as well as an appreciation of another language.

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dippywhentired Fri 24-Feb-12 13:57:26

Cross-post beresh. Glad it worked out for you. It's interesting you say that the first 6 months were hard because of the language - am not sure she/ I could cope with her being miserable when she loves school so much now. I also have an almost 2 year-old so home-schooling in the afternoons would be hard with her sister getting bored, trying to disrupt things! Can just about get her occupied enough so DD1 can do her reading/ other homework.

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natation Fri 24-Feb-12 16:02:57

It takes a very minimum of 6 months of immersion for the average children to understand and start to talk, 12 months before they are really speaking fluently. For this the average child would need to be :
under 8 years old
full time at least 6 hours a day, part time and it will take much longer
ideally in one language only with a substantial proportion of mother tongue speakers

If you were going to stay more than 3 years and also your child was going to be 8-10 years old when you leave, then there would be a good chance to keep the acquired language.

If you still want your child to pick up German and Swiss German (they are 2 languages), then do extra-curricular actitivities in Swiss German / German, get invited to lots of play dates at Swiss German children's houses, don't mix with English speakers too much! If your situation changes in the next few months and you find yourself staying longer than planned, then you could consider transferring to a Swiss German 2nd year of kindergarten, or transferring to a bilingual school where the majority are Swiss German speakers.

dippywhentired Fri 24-Feb-12 17:11:12

Thanks for replying natation. We do tend to socialise mainly with English-speakers as my German is not good and I have been trying to build a life for me here as well, and a support network. I am friendly with some of the parents from the school, who are German/ Swiss, but as they speak English, we always speak in English too. If we did decide to stay longer, there is an integration school for foreigners, where children can go for about 3 months before starting Swiss school. This could be an option in a couple of years if we wanted to stay.

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beresh Fri 24-Feb-12 17:17:46

Sounds like you've made your mind up, but just wanted to say my DD's experience wasn't totally miserable for 6 months. From the start a group of girls called for her to walk to kindergarten with them and she went off happily each day. The teachers were lovely to her but it did knock her confidence for a while and I found that hard. She was sent to a weekly class for shy children, even though she'd never been shy in English school. After about 6 months she said she could understand everything although she still wasn't talking much. Kindergarten friends started telephoning to ask her round to play and her spoken language and confidence quickly took off.

I also have a younger DD, now in 2nd Kindergarten, she did bilingual nursery for a year and has had no language problems. I guess the younger they are the easier it is!

Portofino Fri 24-Feb-12 22:44:18

I agree with natation. My dd started in the French system aged 2.5 - so at an age where she really started to communicate in English. She spoke little for 6 months, though obviously understood enough to get involved. Then it kicked in. If you don't plan to stay in the country long term, and have an international option, I would not force it. But if you DO, I would get dc in local school asap.

natation Sat 25-Feb-12 12:10:26

I think you really need to think about long term as you said in your first sentence you are not sure how long you are staying! If you are on a fixed contract and know you are off to somewhere English in the next few years, well then an English speaking school is without doubt the best option. But if you have a permanent work contract and don't know where you will be exactly in the next few years, then you need to think about what will happen if you are still there in say 3 years time..... also when it comes to school fees, we have learned the hard way, when an employer pays fees and then suddenly announces mid year that next year your contract changes and no more fees, well than left us with a 15 year old in international school and a bill for 20k for this school year which is half a year's salary and 6 people and rent to pay out of what is left. In hindsight, we would have schooled our 15 year old in the local system, like our other children who are all younger. So if you are likely in 2 or 3 years to still be where you are now, you will then have a 7 year old who speaks English with perhaps a passive understanding of Swiss German. That is fine if you are in an area full of expats like Zurich where they is I imagine an expat bubble community. But if you are somewhere smaller, will your then 7 year old manage without Swiss German when doing anything outside school for example? Even in 3 years, were you to move to an English speaking country, would your 7 year old really be at a massive disadvantage to have learnt to speak Swiss German and high German, to have learned to read and write in high German? I have a 6 year old who is in French, who learns only English reading and writing from me. IF we were to move tomorrow to the UK, I would not be at all worried about her catching up with her peers in written English and in fact the class would more likely be behind her in mathematical ability! Ok so she wouldn't be able to write free-hand English so well, but the principles of writing are reading between languages are partly transferable. I understand that Swiss German is not very useful if you were to move back to the UK at age 7, but for me she would catch up quite quickly. It really comes down to what you see as a priority - learning the language of the community you are living in and integrating into that community, or keeping up with the language of a community you may or may not return to.

natation Sat 25-Feb-12 12:15:29

PS do be cautious when listening to the opinions of staff at your child's school - I am assuming the fees are quite high and that does make a difference, when you are asking the school should I remove my child, the school is thinking, oh god we might lose 20k per year in income!!! Also if your daughter is in the minority in being a native language English speaker, it would be quite a loss to the school to lose that native language input which the Swiss German speaking children will depend upon. I would instead look for advice among those English speaking parents who have / have not changed into the Swiss educational system in the are where you live, not look for advice at school.

TheWoodiesinHongKong Mon 27-Feb-12 13:32:10

Our DD started school in a local Hong Kong school a few days before her 4th birthday last March. The kids are taught in Cantonese (with short daily English lessons). Until July, she attended half day school and whilst she's always been very happy at there, I did wonder just how much she was learning. Since September last year, she's been doing full days and there's no doubt her language skills have improved rapidly. She's happy to talk to bus drivers, play with other kids in the village and correct my attempts at speaking Cantonese!

When she started school I was told by her teacher that the non-Cantonese speaking kids spend the first year listening, the second understanding and the third year speaking. I'm not sure how that would equate to learning a European language but there's no doubt a longer day at school has made a huge impact.

There are great resources on the web to keep a check on what kids are learning in the UK to make sure our DD doesn't 'fall behind'.

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