One parent, one language – OPOL is dead, long live OPOL!

by | Apr 15, 2015 | Babies, My book, Practical advice, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy | 33 comments

One parent, one language – OPOL is dead, long live OPOL!
Which strategy should you use to raise your bilingual child? Ask the question and you can be forgiven for getting all confused with the different viewpoints you are offered both by experts and other parents. Today I will take a closer look at the best-known of the family language strategies: one parent, one language, aka OPOL.

For almost a century the OPOL approach (first mentioned by Professor Maurice Grammont in a letter to his colleague Ronjat) was hailed as the only correct way to raise a bilingual child in a multilingual family. (As a side note, I agree with Ute who advocates that the original term ‘one person, one language’ is better, but as the ‘parent’ version seems to be more popular, it made the title).

You can find very recent articles, such as this one, that state that it is not only important, but “imperative that parent select the language he/she is most comfortable, especially in conveying his/her feelings. Otherwise your child would get confuss and mixing the languages can be a real problem.” This is not correct, children are skilled at distinguishing different languages, even when they are spoken by the same person, and children can learn to understand and speak both of them. Whether or not the children will want to speak both the languages is another matter and depends on several factors.

OPOL has also been called a “versatile, easy-to-follow” and “very natural process”. I don’t know about “versatile”. If you are strictly following the consistency rule, I wouldn’t describe the approach as especially versatile. The rules may be easy to understand (one parent/person, one language + consistent language use), but this does not make them “easy to follow”What do you do when the whole family is together? What to speak when other non-speakers of the language are present? What to speak in public so not to come across as rude? What if one parent feels left out? When it comes to OPOL being a “natural process”, yes, it is natural in so far that parents (usually) speak their native languages to the child, something which should come naturally to them. However, if the other parent does not know your language and you have never spoken it in the home, it may not feel natural at all, especially not with the first child and keeping in mind that you will not get a response in the language for several months!

In another recent article, the writer comes to the opposite conclusion to the previous article: OPOL is “the most demanding and a difficult way of teaching a language” but that it still is “the most effective language strategy in cultivating bilingualism”. With the exception of Japan(!), since “socio-cultural factors particular to Japan may render the implementation of the OPOL strategy both impractical and ineffectual”.

Confusion reigns, is the phrase that springs to mind!

About twenty years ago, some experts did start to question whether the OPOL strategy was the best one after all. Should OPOL be rejected as too elitist, used only by well-educated and relatively well-off parents? I know of several families who have successfully raised bilingual children using OPOL but can not be described as either, so I can not subscribe to this view.

Professor Barbara Zurer Pearson also casts doubts of OPOL as the most effective approach in her 2010 article “Bringing up baby. Recent studies suggest that ‘one parent, one language’ is not the best strategy. Her statement is mainly based on research done by Professor Annick de Houwer, the conclusion of which was that “the 1 parent/2 languages method produced the most active bilinguals – 79 percent, compared to 74 percent using OPOL, and 59 percent using a mixture of the two methods.” Professor Zurer Pearson argues that the ‘minority language at home’ (mL@H) approach may be a better option in many cases – this being the approach also favoured by projects trying to preserve a certain language from going extinct.

Professor François Grosjean also refers to the De Houwer’s study and questions whether OPOL is the best solution in his post “One person – one language, bilingual children”. In another article he points out that the De Houwer study also found that 97% of children from families which used the mL@H strategy became bilingual, thus leaning towards a similar conclusion as Professor Zurer Pearson.

Does this mean that any family using OPOL should change their strategy to give the children the best possible chance of becoming active bilinguals?

No – it all depends on the very specific circumstances of each individual family. The variables are just far too many to make any one-fits-all recommendations based on research, no matter how well conducted and how large. Even if you were to select the families for a study to be as similar as possible, there will always be great differences as to the quantity and quality of the exposure, attitudes to the languages inside and outside the families, family backgrounds, expectations, ambitions, time spent fully immersed in a language (e.g. during holidays) and so on. Research into multilingual families is however still extremely valuable as it does shed light on the complex phenomenon of bilingual children.

So what kind of family, if any, should choose the OPOL method?

As Professor Grosjean puts it “children being brought up with two or more languages will need as much language input as they can from each of their languages, but primarily the minority language(s)”. Also, in spite of the above findings that mixing languages can lead to great results, I would like add that consistency does play a role for the minority language – the lesser the exposure, the greater the need for the speaker of that language to be consistent. This was also found in the De Houwer study in that in families where one parent spoke only the majority language and the other used both the majority and the minority language only 36% of the children became bilingual.

If the ‘minority language at home’ mL@H strategy is not an option, e.g. when there is no language that both parents feel comfortable in speaking with the children, the natural choice is OPOL. It has worked for many families and will continue to do so, and especially in scenarios where there is not an equal amount of exposure to all the languages a child is learning. As Professor Grosjean says “the one person–one language approach deserves to continue being an option for parents. But at the very least, it should be adapted (when that is not already the case) and a family plan should be set up”. I couldn’t agree more, and this is why creating a Family Language Plan is an important part of my book “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”. To find the best approach, it is vital to understand the exact circumstances of each individual family.

Yes, OPOL may not be the be-all and end-all but it certainly should not be dismissed – let’s not throw out the bilingual baby with the bath water. OPOL might not be the best option for everybody, but it may well be the best option for YOUR family.

Rita

Rita

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.

33 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Very interesting. We are a family with a Dutch mom and a Catalán speaking dad in Spain. Trying OPOL, otherwise the minority language(s) get oppressed, but daily life for my kids is in Spanish. Dado doesn’t speak Dutch and understanding is mínimum. My 3 yr old understands Dutch, speaks a bit, but prefers to answer in Spanish. This can be discouraging, but I am trying my best to be consistent. Thank you for the article!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Dear Suzanne, thank you for your comment, glad you like my post. Please, keep it up – I know it can be discouraging when your child prefers the majority language, but if you stick with it and make the language fun and interesting for your little one, the day will come when the answers will be in Dutch. And oh, what a sweet feeling that will be 🙂

      Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you Rita!
      Sometimes she says a whole frase in Dutch, which makes me happy (and I praise her for it!)

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Great article Rita, thank you! My husband speaks only French to our kids for the most part, and I speak mainly English, and at times French with them. They’ve certainly never been confused and easily separated the two languages from a very early age. We live in the US, so English is the majority language, and this reinforces my thinking that we need to be doing a lot more French at home!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you for your kind comment, Carol! You are right that it would probably be beneficial for the kids’ French if you and your husband were to switch to speaking mostly French at home. However, as I always say, language is about communication and the choice of language should never become something that makes the communication between parents and children more difficult, so it needs to feel right. All the best to you and your lovely family!

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    Rita, Great post and insight! I enjoyed it very much. I believe in personalized learning and individualized program for children. This also applies to raising children in different languages at home. Parents need to be flexible for what method(s) they are using since we need to grow with our children and their needs in different stages. At the same time, being consistent is crucial for the bilingual/multilingual journey. Thank you for such a great article.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you for your kind comment, Amanda! I agree with all you say about raising bilingual children 🙂

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    Thank you so much for this post! I have a unique situation as many bilingual families tend to have and could use some advice. Here is my background:

    I grew up in Latin America with a Spanish/English bilingual mother and a Spanish-speaking father. Spanish was my first language but all my schooling was in English beginning at age 4. What I consider to be my native language (and what I dream in!) is English. I am still mostly fluent in Spanish having spoken it with my family all my life but I have lost some of it after moving to the U.S. twenty years ago. My husband speaks English only and understands some Spanish having learned it as a second language in elementary school.

    We began as an OPOL family until my daughter started preschool. Then, she began coming home speaking in English more and more and naturally, I would default to English. She is now mid-elementary school age and speaks the (stunted) Spanish of a preschooler. Attempting to return to OPOL at this point has been frustrating for both of us.

    Should I just try mL@H and supplement with classes, books, workbooks, etc. or should I continue to try rekindling OPOL? I almost feel like it’s a lost cause at this point. =(

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you for your kind comment and question – a situation which many other parents are familiar with. Due to the high amount of questions coming in and to be sure that as many readers as possible can benefit of the answers, all queries are now handled through our Q&A section (you can check out the Q&A archive here)

      Your question will be featured in the Q&A section on the next available date, which is Thursday the 12th of November 2015. You will find a link to the Q&A on the home page on that day, and I will also send you the link directly.

      Kind regards,
      Rita

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    Wow, how interesting!
    In our case, OPOL isn’t a choice for us, it’s the only option. My husband is Korean, and I’m not. So we’ve decided to speak to the children in Korean and in English using the OPOL method. But the problem is that we now also want to teach them Chinese, so when my hubby and I are together with the kids (like on Saturdays) we’ve decided to speak in Chinese with them then. I’m surprised that OPOL is being criticized because for some families, it’s the only option available

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Jackie – I wouldn’t say it is criticised, just the notion of it being the only and best way to raise a bilingual child is being challenged. Like you say, for some families, it is the only viable option – like in your (and my) family’s case.

      Reply
  6. Avatar

    Dear Rita,

    Thank you so much for your post. I would like to know if there is a limit of languages for children to be exposed to as our little one is currently exposed to 3/4. I am Italian and I do speak it to her, my husband speaks Spanish, that is the language we speak at home all together as I am alone with her most of the day and we think, in thisway, we balance a bit the exposure. Also, as we leave in Barcelona, Catalán is the vehicular language (it is our ‘extra activities’ language) and the little one is also exposed to Venetian as this is the idiom I speak to my family at home (and on the phone..a lot!).
    We are considering to start with a preschool when she will turn 18 months (she is 9 now) and the school we like is (sigh) a bilingual center (Catalan- English).
    Will this be too confusing? Too much? We didn’t want her to start with English yet for the already great number of idioms but I would love to hear your opinion.
    Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Dear Elena

      Thank you for your question and sorry for the delay in getting back to you. More indepth questions are now answered only through the Q&A section and your question will be featured there on Sunday the 15th of May. You will find a link to the Q&A on the home page on that day. I will answer two other similar question on the same day, so the response to you will be part of a more extensive reply.

      In the meantime, please do not hesitate to send us any further details you would like us to consider when answering your question.

      Due to the high number of questions coming in, I realise there will be a while before you get a response. However, should you be interested in individual family language coaching, please respond to this message and I will send you some further details about the different options.

      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
  7. Avatar

    Dear Rita,
    I’m an English Teacher and I’m from Iran. I have a 3 years old student. He can speak Persian (standard language in Iran ) and Azeri (his mother tongue – we’re next to Azerbaijan) .
    His parents have asked me to teach him English. What do you suggest me to do? I was thinking of visiting him one hour a day and talk to him in English only. Do you think it’s a good idea to ask his parents to talk to him in English,too? They aren’t that good.
    I’m waiting for your answer.
    Thanks.
    Regards
    Fatemeh

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Dear Fatemeh,

      thank you for your question. With your student only being three years old, I would recommend that you introduce English through play only, and not structured teaching as such.

      What you could do is to teach the parents some songs, rhymes and simple games in English and they can use these to support their child’s language learning. It is however for you to decide whether you think their language skills are good enough to be helpful.

      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
      • Avatar

        Dear Rita,

        Thank you for your care. It’s really helpful.
        Can you suggest any website or some sources like that for games, songs, and rhymes?

        Regards,
        Fatemeh

        Reply
  8. Avatar

    Hello!

    So here is my situation,
    I currently live in an English country with my husband and my daughter who is now 6 months old.Me and my husband are fluent in English and German since we worked in Germany for a while.

    Since my daughter is born we did only speak English with her but we now feel the need to teach her German and we wanted to use the minority language at home method but the “problem” is that we work from home and most of our job consist in meeting clients and talking on the phone ,i also speak alot wih my husband during work hours, in …yes English! and we work around 6 hours per day, out of those 6 hours our daughter is close to us (listening distance).

    So the MLAH method dont seems like a good option ..as for the OPOL ..well same problem our daughter will ear us speak English together and on the phone almost 4 hours a day and if she see that my husband can speak english it kind of mess up the whole OPOL concept right?!

    So the question is would it be a good option if me and my husband would only talk German to our daughter ( as well as listening tv and radio ..signing ect ) and keep speaking English together and with clients (in person or via phone calls) during work hours ?

    Thanks a lot for your time, please help me im so confused i realy want her to learn German but cant realy stop speaking english at home ..at least for 4-6 hours a day :-/

    Thanks xx

    Reply
  9. Avatar

    Hi Rita!

    Thank you so much for the article! My husband and I are scouring the Internet in hopes of finding some guidance and we’d love your thoughts!

    Our son is 13 months old. My husband is Iranian and I’m not. He speaks both Farsi and English fluently and I’m fluent in English and slightly more than conversational in Farsi. We really wanted our son to learn Farsi so he has been speaking exclusive Farsi to him, and I’ve been speaking Farsi most of the time but when I find myself not knowing the Farsi I use “Fenglish” or English. We speak both Farsi and English to each other at home but try to be as exclusive as possible in Farsi to our son.

    I’m freaking out because I’m worried this is going to confuse him. We are debating me switching to just English with him but since he mainly understands Farsi and I’ve mainly spoken that to him in heartbroken to think he’ll be scared or confused if I switch and on the other hand I’m worried about confusing him and language delays.

    It’s quite the pickle and we’d love to hear some thoughts and guidance.

    Thank you!
    Molly

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Molly

      Thank you for your kind comment and question. To make sure all questions and answers are seen by as many readers as possible, they are all featured in the Q&A section and answered in the order we receive them. Your question will be featured in the Q&A section on Thursday the 29th of September. You will find a link to the Q&A on the homepage on that day.

      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Molly!

      The Q&A is now live and can be seen through this link.

      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
  10. Avatar

    Dear Rita,

    Thank you for creating this very interesting and helpful group!

    I have tried to find the answer by reading all the comments however I do think I did 🙁
    Could you please help me?
    My husband is Italian and Im Spanish,we live in the UK. We use OPOL method, however when we, my husband and I talk to each other we mix the 3 languages…how that is affecting our daughter?is she going to mix them up also?Should we use only one language????

    Thank you very much in advance Rita.

    Best regards,
    Manu

    Reply
  11. Avatar

    P.S: sorry I meant I didn’t…
    Just a little thing to add…
    when we have also a family conversation, even if our daughter is only 18 months, we still mix but always replying her in own language.
    Thank you!

    Reply
  12. Avatar

    Dear Rita,
    Can i ask you a question. I and my husband live in Vietnam. We are the vietnamese. Our mother language is vietnamese. My husband doesn’t know english. I m not so good at english but i can speak english as a foreign language ( my ielts score in speaking task is 6.5).
    I was wondering whether i can speak 2 languages at the same time to teach english for my kid ( she is 6 months old)? I meant i say vietnamese first, then immediately, i translate it into english. Ofcourse i only do this for simple sentences, not for complex ones. (because i think, my english is not good enough to teach her, Plus, she is so young, don’ t need to teach long, complex sentences).
    My method is ok? will it make my kid confused languages when she is older? Her mother tongue ( vietnamese) will be normal?
    I m looking for your answer. Thank you so much!

    Reply
  13. Avatar

    I have more or less the same question as Manuela. I find no information on this anywhere.

    My wife is Australian, I am Flemish (Dutch-speaking Belgium) and that is also where we live. We are expecting and want our child to be bilingual English-Dutch to pass on both of our cultural identities.
    Nowadays, since my wife’s Dutch has become very good, my wife and I speak a mixture of Dutch and English to each other. We sometimes have conversations in one language, but also sometimes each speak in our own language during the same conversation, we regularly code switch, use specific words of each others language, etc…
    Should we avoid this behaviour once our child is around us (code switching and mixing)? If we apply OPOL, should we each stick to our own language when we speak to each other as well? Or is it better to pick one language we speak to each other? What will we do later in group conversations? I’m really wondering about this. Thank you for your answer.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Niels

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you – we will pick up your question in a Q&A which will be published on the 16th of February and you will find a link to the Q&A on the home page on that day.

      All qualifying questions are answered in the order they arrive and only through the Q&A section so as many readers as possible can benefit from the answer.

      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
      • Avatar

        Thanks, I look forward to it!

        Reply
  14. Avatar

    Hi Rita,

    Among the difficulties of OPOL, I was wondering if this issue has been discussed in the literature yet: that it requires team work and can only be applied in families where the mates have a strong and stable relationship with each other. When the parents’ bond weakens or disintegrates, and separation or divorce occurs, the child then would cling towards the main caregiver’s language.

    Reply
  15. Avatar

    Hi Rita,

    I just came across this blog while searching stuff on bringing up trilingual children.

    Up until now we had a set strategy for our two daughters; OPOL. I am Spanish and my wife is Latvian. I only speak Spanish to them and she speaks Latvian, respectively. Between us, we speak English despite the fact that I do speak Latvian. My wife’s Spanish is not so good. We adopted this strategy based on the fact that we lived in Latvia. Therefore, our daughters would grow up with Latvian as majority language and fluent in Spanish (we do the playing, we speak to my parents almost daily through Skype,…) and then they would start getting exposure to English (they also watch cartoons in the original language).

    However, we recently moved to the Netherlands and as they start attending kindergarten and/or school, I assume Dutch will become the strongest language and we should focus more on the Latvian and Spanish at home. My question would be whether you think it’d better to just make either Spanish or Latvian the main language at home, keeping the OPOL strategy in order to make sure that our daughters get the needed exposure to all languages? Eventually they will learn English in the school as this is introduced as foreign language.

    Thank you for your time and great effort to keep up this extremely useful site.

    Regards,
    Ruben

    Reply
  16. Avatar

    This is by far the most readable, concise, and balanced view on one person one language approach! My household used ML@H because both parents speak the same minority language, Japanese. Thank you! May I refer to your post in my website?

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Yoko,
      thank you for you kind feedback.
      You are welcome to link to the post from your article.
      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
      • Avatar

        Thank you!

        Reply

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