August 7, 2020
Why we do not use OPOL: One Parent One Language
Is OPOL the only way to successfully raise bilingual children? Here are top tips and my story.
One Parent One Language, or OPOL…the only way to raise bilingual children?
To set the scene; my partner and I are both fluent in both languages (French and English) although we have different mother tongues. We live in the UK. We don’t use OPOL in our house with our three children. Never have.
They are all bilingual. Our oldest is biliterate and we are working on that with our second. We are also very concious of biculturalism.
I do emphasise that every family dynamic is different and you decide what is best for your children but here is my take on it. My view will be quite controversial to some people. I’ll also give you some specific, alternative methods.
How OPOL works
Ok, I do see the thinking behind OPOL. The key to becoming proficient in two languages is exposure. It would therefore follow that a c. 50/50 split at home would be a great method to maximise your child’s exposure to that language.
The other potential advantage of OPOL is that it could be said to create ‘need’ which is the second important factor in language acquistion. Parents hope that by only speaking one language each, children will believe they need to speak that language back to be understood. Meh. Kids very quickly figure out what languages you understand. You can’t really trick them.
For me it is just too strict. Life isn’t like that. Where is the flexibility? Will a one size fits all apporach work for all international families?
The realities of bilingual parenting
When my oldest child was a baby, my husband was working five days a week in another city. I was very aware that these precious first 12 months of his life were critical for his cognitive function and language development. I was the one effectively holding down the ‘language learning fort’.
Surely OPOL in it’s strictest form would require me to only speak English with him? Wouldn’t this mean his exposure to French – our minority language – would have been significantly reduced?
I was a first-time Mum with a lot on her plate but I was determined. I sang in French, I made posters and pictures in French for him, I read and read and read French stories to him. We Skyped Daddy and his French grandparents and after the calls my brain would be in French so I would make the switch and I would speak French for the hour or so after the call. Our (non) strategy progressed from there.
Parenting in the minority language
Aw Man! I get the minority language?
OPOL also means that one parent gets potentially the harder job…! Shouldn’t you both show enthusiasm for both languages? If your partner speaks two languages and you speak one, then having children is sometimes the kick up the posterior you need to start learning. In our experience, the kids seeing Mummy speak French (I am a native English speaker) and Daddy speak English (a native French speaker) fluently (plus trying hard at Spanish!), has created a feeling that multilingualism is natural and part of life. Something to be embraced.
Is ‘language guilt’ healthy?
It worries me a bit that parents stress about the method of speaking to their children. Sometimes before they are even born. There is a drive and a passion for their children to speak both their lanaguages, I sincerely get that. However, feeling guilty as you slipped up and spoke to them in English instead of French/ Spanish/ Mandarin etc on top of your already ENORMOUS parenting to-do list is not good for you.
By all means think about it before baby is born. I would actually strongly suggest a discussion with your partner and close family. Find a local club or class for your minority language. Get books and online tools! Learn French/ Spanish nursery rhymes… But don’t panic about a strict routine or structure. It has to be as unique as your family is and you may not be able to decide how it will work until baby arrives… more on that later!
Play with language and “code switching”
For us, this is key. If we didn’t switch languages in our house constantly as much as we do, we wouldn’t have half the fun with our bilingual gift! Conversations might start in one language and end in another. Controversial! (Although we do try to encourage avoiding ‘Frenglish’ i.e. mixing in sentences.)
I think playing with the home languages enables children to see the communicative power they have. Enabling a ‘no rules environment’ has helped to create a stress-free, love of language and a desire to continue.
Imagine a child being scolded for using the ‘wrong’ language at the ‘wrong’ time or with the ‘wrong’ person. The connection to this language may fizzle and a battle may commence…. I have seen this with a few families where their child has begun ‘rebelling’ against the language after years of detecting that there can be a ‘wrong’ language.
‘Code switching’ is also a fabulous sign of a flexible and emotionally aware brain. It can sometimes be incorrectly identified as ‘laziness’. I am planning a post on this.
What does research say
In 2007 Annick De Houwer conducted a study collecting data from nearly 2,000 families with varying language pairs (Applied Psycholinguistics: Parental language input patterns and children’s bilingual use) to judge the impact of varying bilingual strategies at home.
The results showed that the OPOL strategy did not result in a significant difference to children becoming bilingual versus both parents speaking both languages.
Before listing a couple of alternative methods, here is a rather wonderful story I heard which shows the power of love on the impact of your language plan – your heart language. A multilingual acquaintance (and professional linguist) told me she had devised a highly structured language plan for her family when she was pregnant.
She herself had picked up many languages in her childhood with her main language being Spanish. She had decided that she would speak to her child in German some days and English in others. Her extended family would speak Spanish to the child. Then after a long labour she was passed her new arrival. She snuggled the baby close and spontaneously whispered, “Bienvenido al mundo”.. (welcome to the world in Spanish). The language plan needed to be revised!
Alternative Methods to OPOL
So what are you saying Felicity? Cross your fingers and hope for the best? No, I truly am not. I know as well as the next bilingual family that some kind of thought needs to go into your language plan. Here are ideas for inspiration.
- MLAH: Minority Language At Home. This would work well for expat families who perhaps do not get to travel to their home countries, for example. There is always a minority language in any bilingual family. This is where your attention should be. This method has high success rates in studies.
- NATURAL EXPOSURE METHOD: Ok, so I made the name of this up. Speaking to your kids A LOT in both languages. Language rich experiences as opposed to a strict timetable. Quality input. Identify your minority language and assess from time to time whether you think they need more exposure to it and address that. I think I am highlighting what many families are doing. And making it work. Don’t ever feel bad that it is not text book but do pay attention to exposure to the minority language.
As I mentioned, exposure and need are key. Find situations where you can speak the minority language. FaceTime Grandparents, watch videos TOGETHER in your minority language and talk about it afterwards, play a board game which uses your minority language, learn a new song and have a karaoke session…
So, how to raise bilingual children?
We have three fully bilingual, happy children. With all bilinguals they have one stronger language and that is English. They are schooled in the UK so that is to be expected. They construct complex sentences and can converse fully in French on a range of subjects. Our oldest two can also read in and have started writing in French. Ok, we have not hit teenage years or any complications that will come with that but we are fortunate to have family in France.
So my conclusions from our mini-family experiment? Exposure is key, nurture is crucial, fun is… well fun!
If you want to get in touch about any of this. Questions about your family dynamic, issues or even to give me top tips! Get in touch! I love chatting these things through. I can point you in the direction of research and great websites plus my own experience working with bilingual families and monolingual parents striving for a rich language life for more than 9 years.
But most of all, enjoy languages.