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.