Once an OPOL, always an OPOL?

One of the most common and well-understood methods of raising bilingual children is OPOL – the “One-parent-one language” paradigm. Used mainly in families where the parents have different first languages, OPOL is generally a successful method for raising children who speak two languages. One of the main tenants of OPOL is the importance of consistency – each parent needs to stick with their own language, in order to give consistent input in each language to the child-in-development.
How to go about this can cause some confusion – what about when everybody is together? Should the parents continue to speak *only* their first language? What if they do not speak each other’s languages and need to speak some common language together? Realistically, in an OPOL family, parents do their best to maximize the input from each language, with the understanding that the children will hear them speak other languages sometimes too. When children are very young (up to about the age of 3-4 years old), input for the purposes of language learning is mainly one-to-one interactions. This is why first children often start talking earlier than younger siblings, and why singletons often start talking earlier than twins – the more the input from parents/caretakers is shared among other children, the longer it takes to accumulate enough language to start talking (generally speaking, of course).
The question is, how long must OPOL families retain these strict language divisions? Should each parent keep speaking only their own language until the kids are off to college? In some families, it does work that way, but for the majority of OPOL families (mine included) after the first few critical years, the language dynamic becomes much more fluid. Once the children have differentiated the two languages (or three) in their environment, and have a solid understanding of what belongs in what language, the OPOL rule can often be relaxed somewhat, without damage to the bilingualism process. In our family, we have moved to a “Domains of Use” model now – the kids go to school in French, and when I talk about school with them it’s mostly in French. But when we are together with other English speakers (including the Dad), we all speak English together. This works for us because we have a good balance of French and English in our daily lives, with a healthy smattering of Dutch thrown in. The kids all know what is what in terms of language, and who does what, and they can adjust accordingly.
There are families for whom the move away from the OPOL guidelines can be a slippery slope. Even after the children have developed and are aware of the different languages, if one language is a minority language, the input from that parent is critical. For example, an Italian-Dutch couple raising their children in the Netherlands need to be wary of moving towards using Dutch to the exclusion of the maintenance of Italian. The Italian-speaking parent then needs to always be aware of the importance of enough Italian input to keep the children’s language skills growing. Some research puts the magic figure at 20% of waking time in a language, but I really think it varies among children, and to keep an active usage of the language and encourage growth, 20% is fairly scant.
The bottom line is that OPOL is not always a choice for life – like every other element of the bilingual journey with your children, you need to be aware of how they are doing at all times, and consider different language input options for different circumstances, and even for different children.

6 thoughts on “Once an OPOL, always an OPOL?

  1. Vanessa de Oliveir says:

    Hi, Thank you for your blogs -I especilly liked thi one as we are an OPOL family ourselves. 2 comments: as I am responsible for the minority language, speaking Portuguese with my Children in the Netherands is also a nice way for me personally to have a piece of my culture in my hous in theNetherlands so I don’t think OPOL will ever change in our family. I found it very surprising to read that younger sibblings take longer to learn to speak when around me I usually notice that the younger ones learn to speak much faster and I always thought it was actually because they get more exposure hearing mom speak to the older brother…isn’t that the case?

    • eacrisfield says:

      Hi Vanessa,
      Yes, minority language parents often need to stay with the OPOL guidelines, in order to maintain the language and culture within the family. You probably will want to always speak with your kids in Portuguese, and you may want to make sure your husband learns Portuguese too!
      On the sibling issue, it is overall statistically the case that first children start talking earlier, but there is, of course, a wide range of “normal” in terms of child language development. It’s not possible to look at only the children in one or two families to see this pattern at work, because of the affect of individual differences. It’s only when researchers look at large numbers (enough to overcome some of the effects of individual differences) that these patterns show up. Also, as I mentioned, small children don’t pay as much attention to interaction between other people (for example, parents and siblings) – input directed at the child is more effective that “ambient” input of the people around them.

  2. John Graham says:

    Nice post – thanks. We are doing the OPOL. My wife is Hungarian and I am British. Our daughter is 15 months. We just moved back to Hungary from Asia. My wife has just gone back to work so I am looking after our daughter quite a bit. It is a great opportunity for me to bond with my daughter and increase her exposure to English.

  3. Svetlana says:

    Thanks for the post, we’re about to have our first child, and we want to raise her bilingual, but I was confused which language to speak when we all get together. What you wrote makes sense.

  4. expatsincebirth says:

    I’m trying to catch up with all your posts and am very pleased that you wrote about this topic. I totally agree with you that after a first period – mostly with the first kid – the OPOL rule can be more relaxed. My children do change from german to english when they talk about something they did at school. What I also observed in some families (and mine too) is, that with more children involved, you can see different patterns. One child might like – and use – more one language than his or her siblings. Sometimes this can lead to a quite challenging linguistic situation within the family. For example, if one child really doesn’t like to talk one of the languages even if exposed to it regularly, how can you avoid the other children in the family to do the same? Especially if the one avoiding the language is the elder one?

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