Does OPOL cause a “language division” in the family?

Question

Hello,

My name is Roberta and I have only recently found out about your website and signed up to the newsletter and I’m hoping you can help with a query I have. I’m Italian and my husband is English and we live in England together we our 6-month-old son. He will grow up here in England and attend English speaking schools, but I am going to try my best to let him grow up bilingual English-Italian.

Back in Italy it’s not just his grandparents who hope to communicate with him, but his cousin too, who is only 3 months older. I am hoping to keep contact as frequent as possible with the trips to Italy as well as daily Skype conversations. Ideally I will try to teach him writing too but I’ll take a step at a time and see how he feels about that. Luckily, I do know Italian families here too and we will try and let him have enough play time with their children in order to – hopefully – boost motivation.

The reason why I am writing is the following: being my first child this is my first experience with trying encouraging bilingualism from birth – I do appreciate our family situation is not as complex as others, but still it’s my first experience. My husband and I speak English together and, while he has picked up a little Italian vocabulary, he doesn’t know any Italian grammar and therefore when I speak to my little boy in Italian he can only understand very little.

I still try as much as I can to speak Italian to my son when my husband is present as I am trying the OPOL approach but:
a) there are instances where I can’t avoid but talk to both, therefore I switch to English. I wonder if this is going to confuse him and impact negatively the OPOL method
b) I don’t want him to grow feeling that there is some sort of “division” or “barrier” between mum and dad (their languages). I’m not sure how to explain better, but I hope what I’m saying makes sense.

From your experience working with many families in the same situation as mine here in the UK, what do you think is the best approach and what works best?

Thank you in advance for your help.
Roberta

Answer

Hello Roberta,

Thank you for signing up to the newsletter and for the question about your two languages potentially creating a divide in your family – it is as valid a query as any other, since it is something you are concerned about. Also, I am sure you are not the only one thinking about this, especially with the first child.

You are doing great in planning ahead and thinking of different opportunities for Italian exposure for your son! If you can find Italian families who speak only Italian at home, their children will be the perfect friends for your son as far as motivating him to use Italian.

Have you discussed this with your husband? I am asking because I have often come across situations where it is the minority language parent who is the most worried about whether the majority language parent understands everything or not, while the majority language parent is fairly relaxed about the situation. That said, I do also know families where this is an issues and in some cases to the extent that the minority language has been dropped.

Has your husband expressed his concerns about the situation? Does he feel left out? If your husband already understands some Italian you are off to a good start. When you speak with your little son, you will inevitably be repeating lot of the same phrases. If you feel that your husband is not following what you say or he makes it clear that he does not feel part of the “discussion”, mention briefly what you are speaking about. Encourage your husband to ask whenever he wants to know the meaning of something.

My presumption is that your husband is in agreement with you that your son becomes bilingual in English and Italian, as I would have expected you to have phrased your question differently if he was not. As you both want the same result, the next step is that you as the minority language parent will need his support to be successful and that he embraces your family’s bilingual life (read the linked-to article for further thoughts on this).

With regards to your specific questions:

a) Will it confuse your son that you switch to English when you speak with your husband?

No, using several languages does not cause confusion. OPOL simply means that you will stick to Italian whenever you speak directly to your son, but it is still fine that you speak English with your husband or when you want to make sure to include him in the discussion. Since you are the only parent speaking Italian, it is essential that you switch to Italian as soon as you speak only to your son. This way you create a habit both for yourself and your son and maximise the exposure to the language. When he starts attending daycare or school, English will quickly become his dominant language and it is vital that he has a solid foundation and routine for speaking Italian at that point.

b) Will the languages “divide” the family?

No, the languages will not put you in two camps – a close family relationship hangs on so many other aspects. I would also recommend to not look at it as a “family with two languages” but a “bilingual family unit” – just in the same way as a bilingual person is not two monolinguals in one, but one unique individual in his or her own right. Look at the languages as something that enriches your family life and continue being an excellent bilingual role model to your son.

Wishing you all a very successful multilingual family journey!

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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