Q&A: Should an OPOL parent switch the language spoken with a child depending on who is present?

by | Jun 29, 2017 | Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 4 comments

Should an OPOL parent switch the language spoken with a child depending on who is present?



Hi Family Language Coaches!

I wanted to ask if, in an OPOL household, it would be detrimental if a parent spoke “the other parent’s language” to the child in certain public environments.

I live in Germany and speak German natively (and English fluently). Both of my parents speak German natively, and limited English. My partner is originally from Russia, but moved here with his parents as a child. He speaks Russian natively, having always spoken it at home, German fluently, as he spent the largest part of his academic life here, and English fluently, due to school. His mother speaks English and German fluently due to work, whereas his father works at a company were the work floor language is English, so his German is limited.

My partner and I want to have kids somewhere in the next five years, and raise them using OPOL. We will continue to live here, so German will be the majority language. I am studying Russian hard, in order to speak my partner’s native language to him every once in a while, and to speak with his relatives that do not speak much/anything else.

The other day, my parents mentioned they find it rude when people speak a language other than German in public. I didn’t really agree with this, but I chatted about it with my partner during dinner later that night, and we agreed we feel speaking a language people around you do not understand is rude if you are engaged in a social interaction with those people, such as at the dinner table or in a work conference.

But then, he surprised me by saying he intends to speak German to our kids when my parents are around, and expects me to speak Russian to them when his parents are around, in order to enable a group conversation and not be rude.

I do not know how to feel about this. I have learned, reading your site among others, that when using OPOL, the parents should not show the child they speak the “other” language, especially not the minority parent. I am concerned switching when around our respective parents-in-law would cause trouble in the children’s bilingualism (and then I’m not even touching on the oddity of speaking a language we are not native/culturally at home in to our children). However, I understand it is sometimes handier/more polite to do so.

What do you think? Thank you so much for your time!


Dear Mex

Thank you for your question about choosing the languages you should speak in different situations with your future kids. I commend you for thinking and discussing about this topic ahead of time, as it will make things so much easier later.

One parent, one language (OPOL) is the obvious choice for you, with you speaking German and your husband speaking Russian with your children. Your setup will be made all the easier by the fact that your husband already knows German and you are picking up Russian, so there will never be a situation where one you would feel left out of the discussion.

I know that some people, just like your parents, can find it odd, or even rude, for others to speak a language other than the community language when in public. I would politely question this thought – if your parents were to go on holiday to Spain, what would they do? Would they stay silent in public as they do not know the country’s language? Of course, it is important to be polite in any social situation, but I can really see no reason for a blanket ban on speaking different languages in the public.

In other social situations, where there are people present who do not know the language you speak with your child, my recommendation is to stick to your language as far as possible and translate for others when necessary. However, you will be the best judge for what is the best approach in each situation, as this will be different depending on who is present.

The stick-to-your-language rule is more important for the minority language parent, in your case your husband, as the need for consistency is higher the less exposure a child has to a language. Further reading: 5 thoughts about consistency when using OPOL.

All this said, it is natural for a bilingual person to switch between languages, and it is not possible, nor recommendable for a parent to try to hide that they know a certain language – you will be found out, by the latest when you answer a phone call in that language in the presence of your child! The best way to ensure that a language stays as the main language between a child and a parent is to establish a habit of consistently speaking it, not trying to force your child to use it.

I can understand your husband’s wish for everyone to speak the same language, i.e. Russian when his parents are present and German when yours are. However, what will you do when both sets of grandparents (or other relatives) are present? What I am saying is that there will always have to be compromises and the best way to avoid tricky situations is to discuss this in advance with both sides of the family.

Explain how important it is for you that your children learn both languages and that you will always translate when necessary, but that they should not feel offended by your use of language. When you do have children, you can demonstrate this by recapping your discussion with your child in the other language for the benefit of other people present. However, there is no need to completely avoid using “the other” language with your children (should you want to), they will not get confused.

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards

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.


  1. Annalisa

    I’ve spent the last couple days thinking about this question, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not particularly rude to speak an unknown language in front of another person. (It can be, but it’s not inherently so.) My position is that I’m an American (native English-speaker) living in Guatemala with my Guatemalan husband (native Spanish-speaker, majority language). I am bilingual; my husband and his entire family speak *only* Spanish. My mother (the only person in my family who visits us) has studied Spanish but feels much more comfortable speaking English. So, when the three of us sit down to eat, my mother would either have to speak Spanish (which she would feel uncomfortable doing) or my husband would have to speak English (which he cannot). I typically get to spend most of the meal translating; I won’t say it’s ideal, but two of the dearest people in my life can each express themselves in the language they feel most comfortable in, and that’s important to me.
    Different example, same me. One of my dearest friends here is Canadian (native English-speaker) and her husband is also Guatemalan. Unlike my husband, hers has actually learned a decent amount of English, but he prefers to speak Spanish whenever possible. The three of us have two common languages. Whenever the three of us are all together (but not my husband), she and I speak English, and her husband speaks Spanish…and we all just understand one another. Should my husband enter the room, the general conversation will shift to Spanish (as it becomes the only common language), but if I have a question or thought just for my friend, I’ll typically revert to English as it’s the language in which I express myself better.
    When I say that it can be rude is if your goal for speaking the non-common language is to be purposefully exclusive. I don’t speak English with my friend in front of my husband to exclude him from the conversation if what I have to say/ask is specifically for her; it’s simply the language that she and I use most quickly and clearly. My mother and I don’t speak English in front of my husband to be rude to him; it’s simply the language that she feels comfortable speaking. But when you purposefully pick a language that someone in the conversation doesn’t know to speak about him or her in front of him or her, then, yes, you’ve crossed into rude territory. Would you say it in a language they understand if you could? No? Then you probably shouldn’t say it in any language.

    I guess to sum it all up, if you plan to use OPOL it’s probably best that you stick to one language each when speaking directly to the children, but just be aware that you should also model how to be a good bilingual (if you are bilingual). If you don’t know Russian enough to participate in a conversation (such as my mother with Spanish), you may want to consider not using that language in a conversation and just have your husband translate what you say to his parents; however if you feel comfortable conversing directly with his parents–and they’re the patient sorts–then it would definitely be good practice for you. The kids will figure out who speaks German and who speaks Russian, and as you currently live in Germany, a little extra Russian exposure won’t hurt anything. Just make sure you think of yourself in the equation and decide how you feel about speaking Russian conversationally with native speakers because, quite frankly, if you’re doing OPOL and the in-laws come to visit, you’ll be the only non-native speaker in the room.

  2. RW

    Hi, I have been thinking about that also and I have been struggling with that and sometimes I get myself speaking the majority language to my child (which is terrible).
    I’m Brazilian living in the US so Portuguese is native to me and the minority language. My husband and stepson (who spends summer breaks and holidays with us) speak English only and don’t understand Portuguese at all. I’m bilingual and feel comfortable in both languages. My son is 20 months old and we use OPOL with him because that’s the only method we can use since my husband doesn’t speak Portuguese.
    I speak 90% of the time in Portuguese with my baby but there are moments that I find it difficult but I try my best to discipline myself not to, but sometimes I don’t know what to do. For example when I want to say something to the whole family I cannot say it in Portuguese or if I’m saying something to my son and want my husband to understand I say it in English or I have to say it twice for example “maybe daddy can put your shoes on” I have to say it twice, but I sometimes it just comes out in English and I didn’t even realize it.
    In social situations I also don’t know what to do, sometimes we are out somewhere and a kid or a person says hi to him and I don’t know if I say “say hi back” or if I say “fala (say) hi” or “fala oi” (say hi in Portuguese). I also noticed that some people stop interacting when they see me talking in Portuguese with him, they might think he doesn’t speak English or that the communication will be too difficult to bother.
    I haven’t found Brazilian or bilingual families around me with same age kids to have play dates so I normally meet up with other native English speaker families and that’s also a struggle. They understand that I’m raising him bilingual and often it gets really difficult and awkward when I have to say something to everyone (i.e. “What if we all play soccer?”) or say something out loud to him and everyone around kinda stops and try to understand what’s going on or look “lost” and then I have to repeat myself in English. So what happens is that I get myself saying everything twice in both languages all the time not to get awkward or to make people understand me but then what happens is that my son doesn’t hear from me 100% in Portuguese.
    So to sum up it’s very hard and sometimes I don’t know what to do but for the sake of getting your children to speak the minority language we have to try to go around these situations and explain ourselves to others very often.

    • Annalisa

      Are your husband and step-son interested in learning Portuguese? My husband was never interested in learning English until he had a father-in-law who doesn’t speak Spanish. I’m no expert, of course, but if he/they are interested in learning, baby language is the easiest because you typically use simple sentences, lots of props, and plenty of repetition when speaking to a baby. And if they learned Portuguese, you could definitely opt for ML@H even if private conversation was still conducted in English. (Our first child is due in August; so give me a year to let you know if my theory works. 😉 )

  3. Katherine

    This is a really interesting and valuable discussion.
    We live in Indonesia: my husband is Indonesian and I am Australian. Interestingly, due to our two boys attending an English-medium school, I would say that Indonesian is almost a minority language at times. I speak Indonesian fluently, and this is the language that we use as a couple. We do OPOL with the boys, who thankfully appear to be growing up bilingual and biliterate (although their Indonesian literacy needs constant work.)
    However …
    In public situations in Indonesia, such as going to the mall, weddings, family occasions etc, we are not comfortable speaking English. I didn’t speak English in public before I had kids, and I don’t now unless I’m with someone who doesn’t speak Indonesian. English has high social prestige here, but it is also a social divider: as soon as people hear any English come out of our mouths, their ears prick up and they point at the ‘bule’ (albino or whitey). My boys identify strongly with being Indonesian: they were born here, have Indonesian passports and this is their home. Rather than sticking out (and echoing the German parents of the original question in this post!), we conform to the majority language in public. I should add that we do the same when we visit Australia, where my husband tries to get by in public with his faltering English.
    The boys are very funny: they will use English with me in the car, but as soon as we step into the carpark, they switch into Indonesian! They are very aware of circumstances although we have never openly discussed it.
    So my suggestion would be: use OPOL as much as possible, particularly at home, but look at the time and place when you are in a public sphere, to see which language is more appropriate. The boys have enough exposure to English that not using OPOL in public doesn’t hurt them: me using Indonesian, as a foreigner, ironically shows them the value of the language (which some native-born Indonesians don’t do, by bringing up their kids to speak ‘faulty’ English). Good luck!


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