International School Community Blog

Selecting an international school: Tip #5 – Does the school have a clear primary language of instruction?

What reasons do parents think about when selecting a school for their children when they move abroad? Are there similar reasons why teachers choose to work at a school abroad as well?  Many international school teachers are teaching couples that have children.  There are also international school teachers who are married to a local and have children too.  So, how do you choose the right international school for your children to attend?  This blog series will discuss the Tips for Selecting an International School.

Tip #5 – Does the school have a clear primary language of instruction?

In most international schools, the primary language of instruction is English (although there are French, German, and other primary-language-focused schools), but it is best to confirm this (especially at the preschool and kindergarten level).

This a good question on a few levels and a good understanding of the layers surrounding the language of instruction and how it is implemented within an international school context need exploring. On the surface, most prospective new teachers and parents would feel a strong measure of confidence just knowing that English is the primary mode of instruction and that the school uses a Western country of origin in the name (British School of…, American School of…), and that the school has past some form of accreditation, which to a parent mostly means the school has been checked and measures up to a credible standard and English language would undoubtedly have played an important role in the process. All of the aforementioned in many cases would suffice most parents’ concerns.

However, in Thailand, for instance, a school is officially pronounced ‘international’ when it meets at least a 60% non-Thai student base. Unfortunately, many international school intake numbers reflect a much greater Thai national student roll. (Thailand is just one example; this goes for any ‘international’ school in any country where the bulk of the student body is made up of students from the country the school is in.) If this is the case, even though the primary language of instruction is English, students may find getting to know others who come from another primary language base quite challenging. Even within the classroom, when English is often the only language ‘allowed’, if the greater number come from a country other than an English-speaking one, much of the student conversation reverts back to the home language. Once out of the classroom, students automatically revert to their native tongue and an English-speaking student can easily be left out of friendship groups, study groups, and other aspects of school, like team sports, which may end up not being pursued even if it was a passionate option a student may have been involved in previously. Developing good peer groups with shared interests is absolutely vital for students moving to international schools, especially if the one they are moving to is their first.

Some schools have tried coming up with ‘English-speaking policies’ that could stipulate English as the only language spoken on campus.

  • Difficulty number 1: teachers become policemen; they endlessly approach students telling them to speak English only; much like trying to enforce a dress code whereby boys are to always have their shirts tucked in.
  • Difficulty number 2: students who continue to be caught not speaking English can begin to view this exercise as a way to annoy certain teachers (they love to watch some get all red-faced and look as if they are either going to implode or explode, or both), or it can become a way to show a measure of rebellion.

Students may even begin to view English punitively, negatively, as something they have to do which can mean a negative outlook on education as a whole impacting concentration, learning, and formative assessments. There is much empirically-based written about this and the debate rages on – to what extent should the English language be promoted throughout a school? The Australian Government of Child Services advocates, as one example, that home languages should be encouraged and actually help fortify classroom learning when the primary language is English. The difference is in the teacher’s ability to differentiate individual student needs.

Some international schools (selective ones) may try to defer this rationale by claiming they have strict admission criteria but if the student population numbers are home-country lopsided the outcome is certainly going to follow, to some measure, what is stated above. It is just a natural way students will gravitate towards.

Some international schools (Shell or other gas and oil company-owned schools) are non-selective as they are primary education facilitators for the children of their employees. Shell schools are primary curriculum-based so English language acquisition and delivery is almost seamless; young learners pick up language nuances almost effortlessly. However, this is not true for older students moving to English language-based curricula. Some parents are so keen to have their children in an English-speaking school that they forget to take into consideration their children’s ages. I have personally interviewed Algerian parents who enrolled their almost 17-year-old son in an international school using the national curriculum of England. The lad knew no English. His Arabic turned out to be good but his French was below average. Because of limitations the school could offer, he was only able to take GCSE Arabic and French lessons, and Maths, which he really struggled in. The fact that the language of curriculum delivery was English had almost no benefit in this case.

My advice, interview the school, ask about student ratio intake numbers and definitely ask for other parents contact information. Parents need to take into consideration their child’s needs by closely monitoring and analyzing their educational progress and language proficiency ability both in the home language and in English. Learning in English, like any language, has to be understood from a multi-layered perspective, not from osmosis; physical presence does not equate to language proficiency and successful grade scores.

Teachers scoping out new international schools to work for would do well to get a clear picture of how English is used in the context of the international school in question. Sometimes this does not become clear until INSET before the next academic year begins but after all the effort made in moving and uprooting your family for an international school experience, it is worth making sure as many bases have been explored before signing not only for your own work satisfaction and professional development but for the sake of one’s family’s happiness and stability. An international school experience can be a beautiful thing but I have also met many others who would disagree and won’t touch it again with a 10-foot barge pole. It’s not a vacation, it’s an investment. Assignment: Does the school have a clear primary language of instruction?

This article was submitted by guest author and International School Community member:  Sheldon Smith (contact him here – or visit his BLOG at

On International School Community all school profile pages have a topic in the School Information section that specifically addresses the language ability of the students and the “common language” spoken in the hallways (1491 total comments to be exact – August 2023).  For example on the American School of Milan‘s profile page there have been 2 comments submitted so far on this topic:

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