Q&A: One parent, one language (OPOL)

by | Jun 9, 2014 | Coaches, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy | 2 comments


I have a question about OPOL (one person, one language). We tried this method with my eldest, who is now 4, but the problem we had from day one, that isn’t factored into this method, is grandparents – my Japanese husband’s parents live next door and see my children daily. They don’t speak English (my main language), so my children, especially my eldest, have always had so much more exposure to Japanese. I made the mistake in the early days to also speak to him in Japanese when we were with my in-laws as I didn’t want to seem rude. However, I learnt from my mistake and now with my daughters, 3 and 1 years old, I speak only English. When 4-year-old is at preschool my 3-year-old speaks to my 1-year-old in English, but once he comes home they all switch to Japanese. He also asks me to say things in Japanese rather than English, but recently I tell him I can’t speak Japanese well enough to try and encourage him to speak to and listen to me in English. Another thing I do differently with my daughters is read to them in many languages which I didn’t do with my son. He will listen to the stories now too, but he doesn’t repeat things like my 3-year-old does. She will say some things in Spanish, French and German. I have yet to hear any of them say anything in my native tongue, Irish!


The OPOL method is great to start with but it can become more challenging when the language situation changes within the family or the social context, due to a move to another country, living next to family who supports only one language or when siblings don’t use the same language to talk to their parents and siblings. What works with one child, may not work with the other one. Sometimes a long-term language plan helps, but unforeseeable things can happen and you have to have a plan B, C etc. because sometimes we end up choosing a situation that is easier for our children but doesn’t make us happy in the long run. You live in Japan, right? So the dominant language is the one your son prefers speaking most of the time. – Reading to your daughters in many languages is great! If you try making English as attractive as possible for your children, by reading to them, DVDs, CDs and providing regular input from others – maybe by organising playgroups? – they would feel the need to talk it. I just wonder: why don’t you read to your son? Do you think he is too old now? Or do you fear that he wouldn’t listen? What about letting him read to your daughters? I had a similar situation with my children. When my son was at preschool I would read and sing to my girls. I tried to have one-on-one time with my son when he came home and this was when we would read together – the girls listened too sometimes, but as my son chose the topics of the books and they were 3.5 years younger, we wouldn’t get much of their attention. What really worked very well with my son was to ask him to tell stories to his sisters or to “read” stories to them in his own words. – He really loved it! And it made him very proud: the “big brother” can teach his sisters… For English, I can recommend the jolly phonics books, including the letter-songs (you can find them on youtube too). They were our constant background song on the way to school. Or you can try the bookboard.com books, where you can choose a book by age group and topic. They are great for children who start reading because they offer an audiobook feature: while a voice reads the book, the child can follow the text in the ebook. You can give it a try for free. I hope this helps you a little bit?

Kind regards,

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  1. Elikini iongi

    I am establishing a Languages School in Auckland New Zealand, to foster Language 1 and later to help students transfer L1 to learning L2. Any ideas please… share. Thank YOU. Much appreciated.


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