“We are doing OPOL and I find it impossible to stay consistent in my language use – is my child’s bilingualism doomed?” – this question (or perhaps a less dramatic version of it) often pops up in forums for parents raising bilingual kids. Among the replies you will find on one hand those who state that the poor kid’s bilingualism is indeed destined for a very bleak, if not non-existent, future (because it happened in their family), and on the other hand those who are convinced that it is all going to be fine (as it was with their kids). Who is right?
Without knowing the circumstances in which a child is growing up bilingual, you cannot determine the importance of consistency when following the OPOL – one parent, one language family language strategy. What is fine in one family could be a threat to the minority language in another.
How to know what applies in your family’s case?
Take these five things into consideration and you should get a clearer picture about your own family’s situation:
The exposure time
As a rule of thumb you can judge the level of consistency needed in relation to how much of your child’s waking time (during a week) he or she is exposed to and interacts in the minority language. If you reach up to half of the exposure time in the minority language, then the importance of consistency is considerably less than if your little one only comes in contact with the minority language a couple of hours a day. The less language exposure, the more important it is to be consistent. If both parents switch between two languages in equal measure, the family would be following a two parents, two languages (2P2L) strategy, which has in fact been proven to be at least as effective as OPOL.
Language mixing and code-switching
Switching from one language to another, even within the same sentence, is normal behaviour in discussions between bilinguals who know all the languages used, this is called code-switching. It is not a random mixing of words, but has its own intricate rules and defined reasons. If this is the way you speak for example with your spouse, you do not have to stop it because you have decided to do OPOL to bring up your child to be bilingual. Also keep in mind that small bilingual children often mix their languages when they learn them, but that is not because they are mimicking their parents, but because it takes a while for them to separate their languages.
Child’s personality and age
The more a child speaks a language the more it learns of it. If your child is of a shy nature, more of a thinker than a talker, then you may need to be more consistent in your language use, as you will get less opportunities to interact. Also, the older and the more proficient a child is in the minority language, the lesser the need for consistency. With the age, the awareness of the different languages grows.
Reading in different languages
Any reading is better than no reading. Many parents worry that if they do OPOL they can only read in the language that they have chosen to speak with the child. Children are very apt at keeping languages separate in an OPOL family, and there is no need to be overly strict with the language a book is in. Of course, to support the minority language, my recommendation is to read as much as possible in it, but if a child really wants you to read a book in a language that is not “yours”, just do it. Even if you have read a book in the “other” language, you can still discuss it in “yours” and in this way you are acting as the perfect role model of a bilingual person. However, if you are used to translating on the fly, please feel free to continue. Main thing there is a lot of reading going on in the family! If you do find that all the reading tilts in favour of the majority language, then I would recommend that you work on finding other minority language books that your child is interested in.
Safeguarding the minority language
If you are the only person speaking a language with your child and you want your little one to learn it, then you do have to be the one speaking it with him or her. A child learns best through interaction and the more you speak the better your child will learn. Sticking to your language also means that you are creating a (hopefully life-long) habit between the two of you. The more automatic the choice of the minority language as a means of communication, the higher the chances are that your child will become a fluent speaker of it.
By being consistent in your language use early on in your child life, you are also building a “defence” for when the circumstances change and your kid gets more exposed to the majority language. A crucial phase is when your child starts nursery or school. The stronger the habit to speak only a specific language with you, the bigger the chance that your child will stick to it.
Whatever you do, do not let the choice of language become a stress factor, family languages are important but not more important than a happy family life. Also, never criticize other parents for their choices – and if you are asked for an opinion, remember that everyone’s circumstances are different.