How do children as young as three learn in three languages?

Sharon Munroe serves as outreach coordinator at Austin International School, where her own children happily learn in three languages. In this guest post she explains how the school’s unusual model works.



It is possible for young children to be educated in three languages, even if they have only spoken their native language prior to starting school. In fact, this is both the philosophy and the practice at a unique preschool and primary school called Austin International School located in Northwest Austin. I have seen it myself, both as a parent of young children and now working at the school on the outreach team.

AIS began like many international schools around the world. Founded in 2001 by French nationals seeking to keep their own children immersed in French language and culture during their time in Austin, the school has evolved into one serving both local families and those from as many as 20 different countries, making a very diverse community of learners. Students from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds learn in French, English, and Spanish through immersion with native speakers who are experienced teachers. There is no language prerequisite for entering pre-kindergarten or kindergarten at Austin International School.

What makes the school unique is less readily apparent in the published curriculum than in the way it is delivered and in classroom interactions. Looking around on any given school day, I can see that it is happening:

  • I walk into a Petite Section classroom designed for three-year-olds, and they are singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in English.
  • Four-year-olds down the hall are painting outlines of bodies, drawing in the heart and lungs using Spanish vocabulary.
  • Kindergartners are dancing with their native French-speaking teacher in the multipurpose room.
  • Fourth graders in the Science Lab are having a lesson in French about organs and how the heart and lungs work in humans.

The curriculum is not the juxtaposition of three curricula (one French, one English, and one Spanish); instead, it is one unified curriculum in three languages that includes all subjects. It builds on the core learning from year to year, based on the French Baccalaureate curriculum.

In the unit of inquiry on the human body, all students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten learn vocabulary and the science behind their bodies, incorporating art and music in their classroom as well as physical education instruction. Over three weeks, they learn all of the age-appropriate information from three teachers who come to their classroom on a rotating basis throughout the week. The seamless delivery of the unit allows a dialogue among cultures and languages and develops critical thinking skills. Yes, it happens in children as young as three.

The international faculty leads by example by always working collaboratively. For a typical kindergarten class, a team with a teacher from the United States, France, and Mexico are a classroom team. Each teacher brings his or her personal background, culture, and professional expertise to deliver the best learning experience possible.

Each week when school is in session, they spend at least three hours as a teaching team, planning the units of inquiry and daily lessons and discussing both the needs of the class overall and of individual students. Where one child may need extra support in one language that is new to him, the same child may need to challenge his vocabulary in his native language.

“Fundamental language skills develop in all three languages simultaneously; however, some skills are language specific. Communication between teachers is critical to ensure that students are successful and that we meet their needs in each language,” according to Carol Shay, who joined the first grade teaching team in 2012 after many years in Austin’s public schools.

An assistant teacher helps and nurtures the children alongside each team of three classroom teachers. These vital staff members support the children’s needs both in the classroom and on the playground. Teacher-student ratios are intentionally low to provide support to all learners from preschool through fifth grade.

Many young children are ready to learn at age three in a full-day school environment. They are able to learn a great deal from their classmates and teachers; they see and hear the differences among their schoolmates, who come from many different countries but all now live in Austin, a microcosm of the world. This is the start to their global citizenship.

Austin International School graduates go on to many of the area’s top middle schools—public, charter, and private—and thrive in all settings. One recent graduate, David, who began in kindergarten with no prior background in language or culture beyond his own (as an English-speaking American), has been recognized as a “connector” and won a sixth grade leadership award at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. Other students are learning a fourth language and excelling in advanced math and science. They are well-rounded young people. Most come back weekly for the Alumni Club activities held on campus.

I have seen the progress of the school, the students in general, and my own children over the past four years. Austin International School develops global citizens and critical thinkers.

For more information, please visit austininternationalschool.org or contact me at outreach@austininternationalschool.org.

Sharon V. Munroe


Overcoming the past for a daughter’s future at Ecole Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Thanks to guest blogger Charlene Dlabaj for sharing her story of a single mom’s struggle to give her child a better education than her own. Charlie is a parent and volunteer at Austin French for Kids (also known as Ecole Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or JJR), a French immersion school in North Austin.

As a single mother with limited income, yet also one who is adamant about an exceptional education for my child, it probably would have been most prudent for me to have chosen to live in a district with relatively good public schools or to have chosen a free charter school. While I did consider these options as well as many others, including homeschooling, I did not allow money to be the deciding factor.

I cannot say how many hours I spent researching schools all over the state. Many factors were important to me in choosing a school, but basically, I just wanted to find the all-around best choice, regardless of cost. I was prepared to find a way to make it happen—one way or another!

I wanted my child to have the opportunities I never had. Sounds cliché, but it’s true.

Public school did not prepare me for a successful career in adulthood. Most teachers in public schools work hard at doing right by their students, but my particular school, like so many others, was too focused on getting kids through the system and getting its football players to the championships. There was very little for those of us who excelled at the arts—but hey, our football team was unbeatable!

However well I could have done academically was lost because of ignorance about different learning styles and multiple types of intelligence. I was placed in the proverbial box that wasn’t the right size or shape for me, and therefore my potential was stunted.

While my parents were aware of my talents in the arts, they had little advice or help to offer me on how to pursue these interests. School was my only resource, and it failed me. Discouraged, I went in another direction and ended up in a series of low-paying and thankless jobs that taught me one thing above all: for most individuals, an authentic, individualized education is crucial for real success.

I became determined to make sure that my child had the opportunity to reach optimal success through a well-rounded education. It would be very unfortunate for a child to miss out on the chance to study a field that requires academic excellence simply because they were not given the opportunity to prove their abilities in school. On the other hand, it would be equally unfortunate for a child with a different type of intelligence to go uninspired simply because a school treats traditional academics as all-important. That is why I was thrilled to find the right balance for my child at Ecole Jean-Jacques Rousseau!

When I tell people that my daughter goes to a French immersion school, they always ask me why I feel French is so important. What I always have to explain is that it was not the French language that led me to choose this school. While learning other languages is really helpful for educational purposes, and I like the idea of language immersion, as well as the fact that they also offer Spanish, Latin, Italian, and Arabic classes, language was only one of many reasons:

  • I like that it is family owned and that the family members are teachers. My daughter gets all the attention and affection a small child needs from her teachers and is treated like part of an extended family.
  • I like that the school is small and that the ratios are incredibly low, usually between 3 and 5 kids per teacher in a school with about 20 to 25 kids total, pre-K through 12th grade.
  • I like that my daughter will have the same teachers, friends, and stable educational/social environment for her entire childhood until she graduates.
  • I like that academics are taken seriously, but that the arts are also a high priority, as the school offers theater, art class, choir, and guitar and violin lessons, with end-of-the-year performances.
  • Another bonus is that it is about half the cost of the “best,” more expensive schools that fell short of my expectations. It is not easy for someone like me to pay tuition of any kind, but it is doable if I set it as the highest priority. That means others in similar circumstances can, too.

Happy, hard-working students at Ecole Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Above all, at JJR there is an acute awareness that the students will use the education they are getting to have fulfilling lives, helping the world to evolve into a better place. The reason the staff at JJR are able to do this is because they understand the multiple types of intelligence that require educators to assess their students’ individual needs, talents, and passions. This is the element that is so crucial to a happy, healthy, well-adjusted adulthood.

After all my research, I was thrilled to find a school that prepares children for any careers they want as well as teaching them to be true to themselves as creative, sentient, and social beings.

Charlene Dlabaj

Start them now

I couldn’t be happier to welcome Virginia Woodruff to our roster of guest bloggers. Today she shares her family’s experiences with one of Austin’s best language immersion programs. Virginia founded the website Great Moments in Parenting, where moms and dads share the agony and ecstasy of life with kids. She invites you to share yours, too.

When I admit that my kids take Chinese, I immediately follow it with “But I swear I’m not a tiger mama!” I’m actually a rather laissez-faire mother, but my mother-in-law’s trip to China prompted me to start my kids in one of the world’s oldest, most spoken, and most challenging languages. (Note that I said “challenging,” rather than “difficult”—part of my attempt to reframe words around my kids, who have no idea that for an average American adult, learning Chinese is equivalent to having your hair plucked out strand by strand.)

My mother-in-law, a language maven, studied Chinese before her trip, just to have a “get along” ability. At the time my son was two. When my mother-in-law returned, she said, “If you can, start him in Chinese NOW!” Apparently it was difficult to “get along.”

We had always hoped our children would be bilingual, so why not start them in this complex language? I set myself to researching and found Chinese with Meggie, an immersion program in central Austin. It was so quaint: Taiwan native Meggie Chou held classes in a toy-filled studio behind her home. Classes were limited to four kids and were all in Chinese. The children played as she slid in the learning by reading picture books in an animated tone, doing puzzles, and playing eating and drinking games with plastic toys. As my son got older it included a quick game of flashcards, identifying pictures of animals or family members.

The program became so popular that, just a few years later, Meggie moved it to the former Griffin School building in Hyde Park, took over five classrooms, and hired six Chinese teachers. Meggie trains all her instructors in her own child-friendly style. “Working with young children, you need a very special connection with them so they trust you and want to communicate with you,” Meggie explains.

Meggie says immersion learning works best for children under age six: “For kids at this age, their brains are working on building language skills in general. There is no concept of ‘first language’ or ‘second language.’” Young children don’t filter the information they receive. “Whatever information they get, they just try to sort out and save it as part of their cognition,” Meggie says.

Older kids usually begin with Chinese-as-a-second-language classes taught in English. “They start to filter information that cannot be recognized by their cognition,” says Meggie. “The total-immersion class might be difficult or ‘distanced’ for older kids.”

We’ve been going to Chinese with Meggie for four years now (my twin girls joined when they were about 18 months old). We’re committed, but it’s not always easy. It’s a long drive in traffic from their school, and I can’t say my kids skip into the classroom every week. But when they grumble, I remind them, “It’s pretty cool that you’re learning Chinese. Maybe one day you can go to China!”

My girls, who started so young, just think it’s par for the course to speak Chinese.  As Meggie explains, “When they start to speak, they copy whatever sound they hear. Mommy says, ‘apple’; Miss Meggie says, ‘pingqua.’”

We count ourselves lucky that we found this intimate atmosphere for learning a language. When I started looking, I swore, “I’m not doing this if it’s taught in some authoritarian style.” I pictured rows of students reciting memorized phrases. We were Montessorians, after all (“help me to help myself”), and I knew a traditional structure wouldn’t fly with my individualistic kids.

I appreciated the difference between Chinese with Meggie and traditional Chinese ways of teaching when we hosted a high school exchange student from China. I had hoped she would speak Chinese with our kids, but it was a nonstarter. The idea of slowing down and repeating words to children, engaging their natural curiosity, didn't make any sense to her. If they couldn't understand her immediately, she walked away. She was used to learning through tests and quizzing. The only part she did grasp was flashcard review.

Some parents bring their kids to Chinese class because they want them to be global citizens; some are bilingual themselves and see Chinese as the third logical language to add; some are—yes—tiger mamas; and some, like me, stumble upon it. But if you want your kids exposed to Chinese (or any other language) while their brains are still spongelike, take my mother-in-law’s advice: Start them now.

Virginia Woodruff