Scarlett has just turned six. She started primary school last September. But which is the right school for a trilingual speaker? Living in a big city we had the choice to send Scarlett either to an Italian, a German or an English school. In the following I will try to explain our thoughts.

German school: So far we are more than pleased with Scarlett’s development in German. She is able to talk about everything she wants to, her grammar is complex and her vocabulary rich. She has a slight Italian accent, her word fluency is lower than in Italian and she makes certain mistakes German children wouldn’t make: “Leg das hier!” instead of “Leg das hier hin!” (German for: Put it here!) or when playing with a playmobil man: “Ich kann die Haare nicht drauflegen” instead of “… Haare draufmachen” (German for: I can’t put the hair back). We are, however, talking about minor mistakes. I am sure that if Scarlett spent some more time with German children, these shortcomings would disappear quickly.

So if we sent Scarlett to a German school she wouldn’t have big problems fitting in. She would be able to participate to classes and she would level up with the other German children after a short while. In our case it also has to be taken into consideration that Scarlett would go to a German School abroad, where most students are not real native speakers, they talk Italian outside classes and the average level of German is lower than in Germany.

Anyway, Scarlett would without doubt benefit greatly from the German school as she would have input from the mother tongue teachers all day long. She would also have a good input in Italian as it is a main subject taught on a high level, but no English until year 5.

English school: English is Scarlett’s weakest language, which is not surprising as she has the least contact time in English. So far she only speaks English to her grandmother and the housekeeper and she listens to Penny and me talking to each other.

So if Scarlett went to an English school, I am sure her English would skyrocket. She already has a solid base and I believe she would soon be able to participate fully to classes. I suppose, however, that Scarlett would struggle quite a bit at the start. Scarlett is a rather reserved girl and she does not expose herself unless she is really sure of herself. In an English surrounding she might find it difficult to find friends and to interact properly. But then, like in the German school, not everybody is an English native speaker in an English school abroad.

Going to an English school Scarlett would have Italian as a main subject, but no German.

Italian school: Scarlett’s spoken Italian is definitely mother tongue, so she wouldn’t have any problems fitting into the system. Above all she would have the chance to refine her strongest language. It is sometimes said that multilingual speakers have slight shortcomings in their strongest language compared to mono-lingual speakers. A German colleague of mine whose children have grown up in Italy and went to a German school told me that according to their Italian father the children’s Italian never reached the refinement he was hoping for. Definitely a point to consider, even though I am not sure whether it can be generalised.

A problem would be that Scarlett would have neither German nor decent English lessons, as the level of English in Italian schools is very low.

The decision: I have to admit that we never seriously considered sending Scarlett to an English school, although from a language perspective there would be good reasons. Our gut feeling told us that choosing Scarlett’s weakest language, the language that neither mom nor dad speak to her, wasn’t the right thing to do. We are happy with her English skills, she has got a solid base and we believe that later on there will be plenty of chances for her to refine her English.

There were many points in favour of the German school, but we decided not send her there either. Scarlett’s German is already very good so we don’t see the need to take immediate actions what concerns language. We will however think about it seriously again once Scarlett has finished primary school.

We eventually decided for an Italian school as it seems the best thing for her personal development. Starting school is a big and important step and it might be better for a rather reserved girl like Scarlett to tackle all the social and intellectual challenges in her strongest language. In the German school she wouldn’t have known anybody, in the Italian school she went together with one of her best friends. And then it also seems important that she further consolidates her strongest language. Later on she might then focus more on the other languages.

The school itself also eased the decision. We found a wonderful Italian school with highly motivated teachers and parents. Scarlett’s class is called an “experimental class” as they use a new approach focussing on autonomous work and including Montessori elements. So far Scarlett loves going to this school. She comes home and tells us: “you cannot imagine how much I enjoyed myself today”. She found many new friends and has opened up a lot. So far she has been sailing through school.

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