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Sep 012016
 

How to choose between OPOL and mL@H?

 

Question

Hello!

My name is Lucia. My American husband and I live in Gijon, a little city in the north of Spain. Right now we are pregnant and we starting thinking which is the best plan to raise our baby bilingually. We have a doubt between two ideas. One, I can always speak Spanish and my husband English; or it could be better if the baby gets the Spanish from the family and the environment and that we all speak English at home. What do you think is better? Or are both good?

Anything you can tell us will help.

Thanks,
Lucia

Answer

Dear Lucia,

Congratulations on your happy family occasion, hope it all goes well! I would also like to congratulate you on thinking ahead and planning in advance about your baby’s bilingualism and your family language strategy.

I will give you some general ideas on choosing between one parent, one language (OPOL) and minority language at home (mL@H), but ultimately you and your husband are the ones who must make the decision, based on what feels right and natural for you.

Going by statistics alone mL@H has a better success rate than OPOL (see above links), but statistics are made up of several individual families in different circumstances and we need to dig deeper into the options.

Let’s start from the easier decision: which language your husband should speak. For your child to acquire English while growing up it is vital that your husband speaks his mother tongue with the little one – an obvious choice, which you have already made. You do however not mention how much time he will be able to spend with your little one during a week – if he works long hours and your child’s exposure time to English is limited, then this is something you need to take into consideration when making the decision on which language you should talk with your child.

We come to the main question: which language you should speak with your baby. As mentioned earlier, if both you and your husband were to speak English with your child (thus choosing the mL@H approach), then you can be fairly sure that your child will grow up bilingual. Like you mention, your little one would learn Spanish from the extended family, at nursery/school and from the community. However, the question you have to ask yourself is whether this is a decision you are comfortable with, as it would mean not speaking your native language with your child.

Speaking a non-native language with your kid has its own challenges and you need to think into the future to understand all the implications (you can find lots of articles and Q&As on the topic if you search the site by the keyword ‘non-native’). The first challenge is whether your are prepared to give up on your native language when starting to speak to your new-born. Do you feel comfortable in using English in this situation – do you have the vocabulary and the feeling for the kind of words you would like to use with your baby? You do not mention how fluent and confident you feel in English, nor how long you have speaking it for, so this is something you need to decide on your own.

Once your little one starts to talk, the discussions will initially be easy, practical and fairly straight-forward – in a few years, and certainly when your child goes to school, you will however have deeper topics to talk about. How would you feel using English and not Spanish in this situation?

If you decide to choose the mL@H approach, then the question about which language you should speak when you are all together has an obvious answer: English. In case you go for the OPOL option then you could choose between Spanish and English (you did not mention it, but I presume your husband can also speak Spanish, at least to a certain level, as you live in Spain). I would recommend that you also in this case select English as your common language. This will further support English as your child’s minority language.

I hope this has helped you make a decision – should you have further questions, please add them as comment below. And please do let us know what you decide!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

 

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  One Response to “Q&A: How to choose between OPOL and mL@H?”

  1. Having used both methods with our sons, twelve years apart, and in Hungary, France (L3) and England, I feel that OPOL is the best method with pre-school children. When our second son went to school, from 5/6, in Hungary, he quickly acquired all the Hungarian he needed for this and we switched to speaking mainly English at home. However, we soon realised that he preferred to switch to Hungarian in talking about school, and that has expanded as he has needed constant help with homework and, of course, in extra-curricular activities, including friendships. He also always has an English reader for silent reading, and we maintain reading out loud time before bed. Although he has English lessons at school, some with ‘native-speakers’, and learns English vocab in some subject areas, we also, as teachers ourselves, often develop his oral production, both informally, through correction of grammar, vocab and word order, and formally, through English-medium activities (on holidays) and ‘lessons’ (at home). For us, it has been important to develop a long-term plan for our second son, given our experiences with our first son. One other comment – because English is not phonetic, it’s been important for us that he learnt the phonemes and alphabet before he started school in Hungarian, which, like Finnish (as far as I know) is phonetic. For children who attend nurseries in a language other than English, parents can develop this awareness through specialist readers as well as ordinary children’s books. The BBC has produced some excellent phonetic materials including, of course, videos and web-sites.

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