For several months now, we here in the International School of Brussels Admissions Office have been doing an activity with prospective families during admissions interviews that allows all family members to choose from a series of 24 cards the five factors that are most important when selecting an international school (see article Rethinking Admissions as a Learning Experience by my colleague David Willows). “Language learning” consistently comes up in the top five, a good 20% ahead of the next cards: “Sports/Arts”; “Curriculum Choices”; “Friends”; “Teachers”; and “Academic Results”. But what does language learning actually mean to the people who visit our school?

Colleague Sara Sulaimani and I have reflected on it a lot based on our interviews with thousands of families over the years and the answer is not simple, as people showing interest in ISB come from a variety of backgrounds with different perspectives. In a modest attempt to begin to answer that question, here we will make some general observations from the points of view of four broad groups:

  • Local Families
  • Expats from non-English speaking countries
  • Expats from English speaking countries
  • “Mixed” families (parents with different languages)

Understanding these multiple perspectives should help guide admissions officers through potentially complex conversations about this serious topic.

1. Local Families

International schools around the world are increasingly popular for local families, mainly due to their pedagogy, the intercultural context, and to the opportunity for children to acquire the English language and all that it entails, and Belgium is no exception. Close to 15% of ISB students are Belgian.

The first language learning concern of most of our Belgian parents is how their children’s English will be supported while they are at ISB, and how long it will take for them to achieve fluency… or at least a level that allows them to enter the IB Diploma Program! In addition, some of the parents worry about their own lack of English and wonder how they will communicate with their child’s teacher or support their child when they are doing homework.

Another concern, depending on the family, is how much instruction in their mother tongue they will be given and at what level. In other words, how can we assure that they will not fall behind in their native language while the focus is on English at ISB? This is extra complicated in Belgium where there are two main national languages, French and Dutch. For this reason, some parents also want to know what the opportunities are for learning Belgium’s other language (French if their first language is Dutch, or Dutch if their first language is French) while other parents, however, make it clear that they would rather that their children focus only on English and their native language.

2. Expats from non-English speaking countries

Expats from non-English speaking countries share many of the same concerns as locals, but there are some differences too. Like local families, they are very interested in knowing how their children will learn English and how long it will take (unless they have already mastered English, of course) but they are also often very interested in how the school welcomes new students to the country and makes them feel at ease, even if they do not speak English. After all, everything will be new for them. They often ask the question: “How will my child, without any English, understand what is going on in the first few days?” English Language Development classes and transition and orientation programmes are very important for this group.

Depending on the family, they are sometimes less concerned about third language acquisition (usually French in the case of Belgium) in the short run. They tend to be more concerned about their child picking up English quickly while also maintaining their home language, especially if they would like their child to have the option of studying at university in their home country when they are older.

Knowledge of home language programmes – or at least resources and even strategies for maintaining home languages – can be important when speaking to expatriates from non-English speaking countries.

3. Expats from English speaking countries

Expatriates from English speaking countries have a very broad range of perspectives. Some fear that the level of English at the school will be lower than at schools in their home country. They sometimes worry that there will be too many local students in the school who do not speak English well and that the teachers will not be native speakers of English or have proper qualifications. (At ISB, prospective parents with these fears are quickly reassured once they understand our demographics and learn about our programmes.)

Other English speaking expats, however, see living in a foreign country as an opportunity for their children to learn another language, especially the local language (usually French in the case of ISB). They want to know what portion of the day will be spent learning the language or whether or not the school has a “bilingual” or “immersion” program. They sometimes want to know exactly how many hours will be spent on learning the local language and even ask how long it will take for their child to attain proficiency in it. It is important to manage the expectations of these families, as it is not easy to “have your cake and eat it too” (reap the benefits of studying in an English speaking school AND become fluent in the local language). In some cases, they are also interested in third languages such as Spanish, German or Chinese, especially if their children have already been studying those languages or have lived in countries where they are spoken.

4. “Mixed” families (parents with different languages)

A group that has grown over the years – and will surely continue to grow in this increasingly globalized world – consists of families in which each parent has a different native language. This is a hybrid group, sharing elements of the three other groups, depending on each family. In fact, there are infinite possible combinations, for example: one parent is an English speaker, while one speaks another language; one parent speaks one of the local languages while the other speaks another language; both parents speak languages other than English or any of the local languages; etc.

For these parents, language is often crucial to their children’s identities in a way that it is not for families from the other categories because they have to make important choices in terms of which languages their children will grow up speaking, reading and writing. They tend to have complex questions about how many languages children can learn at once and they often aim high, in the hope that their children can become fluently multilingual, mastering the languages spoken at home, in the host country, and the main language at international school, English.

Conclusions: Be Sensitive to these Perspectives… and Know Your School!

Admissions officers need to be sensitive to these different perspectives if they are going to navigate successfully through the potentially rough waters of different perspectives on language acquisition. They also need to have a good understanding of their school’s programmes, policies and realities from the perspective of language learning. Finally, it can help if admissions officers have their own observations and reflections to draw from, no matter how many languages they might actually speak!

Admissions Officers Should Be Aware Of:

  • Nature of English Language Development (ELD – sometimes called ESL) programmes offered
  • Instruction of host country language(s) to locals and expatriates, including content-based courses like science or social studies
  •  Other languages offered within the school day or after-school
  • Availability of home language programmes for different languages (on and off campus)
  • School’s position on students receiving learning support in a second language
  • The school’s demographics and linguistic dynamics “in the playground” and questions of integration
  • Languages and university entrance requirements
  • Resources and strategies for language acquisition available to families – but with a dose of realism so as to manage expectations prudently
  • Anecdotes and stories of success

About Robin Berting

Robin Berting has been the Admissions Manager at the International School of Brussels since August, 2014. He previously worked in admissions at the American School of Barcelona (2007-2014) and Korea International School (2005-2007). He is a passionate language learner and speaks French, Spanish, Catalan and Korean. Now residing in Belgium, he would like to learn Dutch, but so far has not got much further than reading signs and asking directions while cycling in the Flemish outskirts of Brussels.

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