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Raising bilingual children as non-native English speakers #4

This is the fourth post from my series about raising our daughter as non-native speakers #1 #2 #3

and it's going to be slightly shorter than the previous posts.

English speaking kindergarten

About 6 months ago we decided that we are going to place our daughter to an English-only kindergarten. We did so in January when Julie was 3 years and 5 months old. As mentioned in the previous posts, we have talked to her in English about something like 20-50% of the time (yes, I know that's a wide interval, I can't do better). We also did some teaching on reading as mentioned in the third post. The question I was most curious was the following:

How long does it probably take a kid to become fluent/self-sufficient/proficient enough once placed in the native English speaking environment?

Based on my initial findings of some anecdotal evidence (and this series is nothing else than that too), I expected it would take about 6-9 months. Well, the results with Julie surprised me. The answer is that it took Julie a month. The generalization can't be done easily here though, as our datapoint is unfortunately ruined by the fact that she was doing pretty well before already thanks to us talking to her in English...

How does it look like now?

So here is a summary after ~80 days, each having about 7 hours of exposure (~560 hours in total) to native or EAL speakers and English speaking peers (kids are "forbidden" speaking in other than English). We also continued to speak in English after picking her up from the kindergarten sometimes (she just naturally wanted too), allowed only apps and media (videos, songs, books...) in English (or Spanish, see below). It means her exposure was therefore very likely between 60-95% (my guess about 70% on average).

  1. She likes speaking in English - she actually prefers that to Czech recently (although it's rather rare). She asks us to speak in English when we switch to Czech. She even stays in English even when she sees us, parents, speaking in Czech...
  2. We sometimes switch between both languages very often, e.g. a few times in an hour back and forth. She manages that totally fine and doesn't have any problem with that.
  3. Her Czech (first language) is totally fine, she's at least on par with other kids her age (I would argue at least 70% percentile).
  4. She can clearly communicate her needs (I [don't] want X), emotions or, feelings (I feel sad because we have to go home). She can discuss whatever activity we do or see, from sport to art.
  5. She can read and "write" (with letter stamps) simple sentences in English.
  6. She has a nice American accent, I am really happy about this one, as that's, for sure, not something we could give her very easily. She picked that up from her main teacher. It's still not that clear as native (thanks to us...), but it's much better than ours.
  7. She sometimes says words we do not know! I love that...
  8. And most importantly, she can learn in English. She can (and enjoy) doing e.g. the excellent Khan Academy Kids curriculum without having any issues with understanding the instructions or the content. This was our main goal.

Nice bonus: Spanish

In our case, Julie is lucky enough to have one teacher from Mexico which is teaching her Spanish. It seems she likes learning Spanish quite much and, for some reason, is happy to consume e.g. Youtube videos and some songs in Spanish too. We also bought some apps on learning some basic Spanish vocabulary and my girlfriend is trying to have some Spanish sessions with her. Over the summer holidays, we want to work on Spanish explicitly with some tutor or something.

I do think that she's picking up Spanish faster than if she hadn't known English already as a second language, but I have no data for that (there are studies showing the benefit of meta-learning though, e.g. in a book Ultralearning)...

Options in the Czech Republic

We had to move to Prague as that's basically the only place in the Czech Republic to have some reasonable selection.

Partly to our surprise, it was quite hard to find a place in a private kindergarten and honestly, it's not cheap. All English-only kindergartens are starting at something like ~13 000 CZK/month (which is ~1/3 of average monthly salary here) and it goes up to something like 30 000 CZK/month (~85% of average monthly salary). And almost all of them were full already, so we couldn't really choose that much. Some kindergartens are also willing to go with the price a bit lower than what's advertised on the site (especially when you make it clear that it's not some embassy paying for that). Payments calendars differ and are also negotiable and in our case, we were asked to pay upfront for the whole term and it's not possible to pay "per day".

We found one we are quite happy with, as the teachers are either native speakers or have English-as-a-second-language (often abbreviated as "EAL" in various materials).

Is it worth it?

I do think so. I would say that if you can afford that, you should do it. I do realize that it's not cheap, but I would also argue that it's not super expensive compared to the long-life gains (and you can find some cheaper ones). I do, of course, realize and understand it's a non-trivial amount of money the majority cannot afford to spend on children's education and yes, it depends on what you envision for your kid.

Consider you are paying ~20k CZK/month for native-English exposure. If your kid can pick up the language on a near-native level in the "worst-case" in 10 months (this is still based on a piece of anecdotal evidence), it means it's 200k CZK with basically zero opportunity cost (kids can't really learn much more in this age, but they excel in learning languages). Any time later in her life, there is opportunity cost (willpower to learn the language, learning something else instead, jumping on a trampoline...) Also, the kindergarten is the least dangerous in ruining your kid in some way (compared to primary or secondary schools, where you can seriously kill your kid's curiosity), and fortunately, the English private kindergartens here in Czech are usually "better" in other ways (like more aligned with our values and nurturing style) than public ones. Me or my girlfriend would happily pay that price for us having her level of English. We would happily pay that for having to spend thousands of hours less on English during our formal education. We would happily pay that for being able to have access to all English language materials.

The ability for her to learn and consume information in English gives us many more options for anything going forward, such as homeschooling/unschooling or tutoring or whatever. The materials are much better than in Czech.

Her ability to learn additional languages seems to be boosted too (as we see with Spanish), but it's hard to factor out if it's thanks to her age or because of knowing a second language already.