Two parents, two languages – 2P2L, double the benefits of OPOL?

by | May 6, 2015 | Choosing the right family language strategy, Family life, Myths, Practical advice | 12 comments

Two parents, two languages – 2P2L, double the benefits of OPOL?In my series on different strategies for raising a bilingual child, I will today introduce an approach, which you may not have heard about: two parents, two languages (2P2L). Previously in this series, I have written about one parent/person, one language (OPOL), minority language at home (mL@H) and time and place (T&P).

With the 2P2L strategy, parents are bilingual themselves and use both languages in their interactions with the children. The language choice depends on many different factors: school matters can be discussed in the language used at school, films and books in the language they are presented in, and hobbies and sports in the language they are conducted in. The choice of language can also depend on who else takes part in the discussion and whether the family wants others to understand (or not understand!) their interactions. Both languages are used roughly the same amount of time. Being bilingual and switching from one language to another is the norm of the family, and the parents are the role models for this behaviour.

The inspiration to bring in this strategy came from Professor Annick de Houwer’s research into multilingual families, which you can read about in her book Bilingual First Language Acquisition. One of her findings was that in families with bilingual parents who spoke both of their languages with the children, a slightly higher proportion of the children (79%) became bilingual, compared to OPOL families (74%). The difference is not massive, but it is there, and certainly warrants a closer look at the 2P2L approach.

Traditionally most studies about raising bilingual children have been conducted with families who say they follow the OPOL approach. Professor de Houwer however found that in her study of 1356 families actually only about 17% of them used the OPOL strategy! The 2P2L was used by 42%, and in 41% of the families, one parent used only one language, while the other used two.

Within the last mentioned families, the success rate was highly dependent on which language both parents spoke with the children. If the shared language was the minority language, the success rate was 93%, but it sank to less than 36% if they used the majority language. In other words, the minority language was the one losing out in this scenario.

What about consistency, can we forget about it?

So, if 2P2L, a strategy where both parents speak both family languages, is more effective than OPOL, can we stop discussing about consistency? In certain family language setups, the answer will probably be ‘yes’, but in others it is definitely still ‘no’.

If you take the last example, where one parent speaks the majority language and the other both the majority and the minority one, the success rate was only 36%. If the minority language parent was consistent with using only the minority language (the family would then follow the OPOL strategy), the odds rise to 74%. If you have read my posts before, you know I have always been a proponent of consistency, especially for the minority language parent – for reasons of exposure and language preference. This research confirms my belief in its importance. Being consistent is however not important in a 2P2L scenario, as the child will have enough exposure to both languages.

What about confusing the child with many languages?

Using several languages in a family does not confuse a child! This is persistent myth that unfortunately still pops up in forums and less informed articles. Children can effectively distinguish between different languages at an early age and will not get “mixed up” by parents using more than one language. I would still try to keep to one language in one sentence, though, until children learn to use both languages separately.

Who should use 2P2L?

To use this strategy, both parents should be comfortable in speaking both of the family languages. The best outcome will be when both the languages are also spoken in the community, so that the child can easily be exposed to them from other sources. The child should also have access to other resources in both languages, including books, magazines, films, TV programs, cultural events and so on. Ideally, the child should also spend time with other children who speak the same languages. It is important that the child is motivated to actively use both languages and there are opportunities to do so.

To sum it all up – does “doubling” the languages used by parents double the benefits? No, it does not, but it may well make life easier for many bilingual parents who find the OPOL strategy difficult to follow and is in fact, at least statistically, the better option for them.

What are your thoughts about the different family language strategies? Were you aware that there are several different approaches that you can take when bringing up a bilingual child?

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  1. Karolina

    This is our strategy! Dh and I both speak English and while we predominantly speak our respective native languages to our toddler (me Polish, he Spanish) there are times when we both use English with her. 🙂

  2. sarah clark

    We live in Spain, I am British and speak Spanish to a high level. My husband is a Spanish speaker only. Our 8 year old has been exposed to both languages at home since before he was born and goes to Spanish school. I speak English with my son when we are alone and Spanish when we are with his father or in company. My son has perfect English with British pronunciation, and he sounds Spanish when speaking that language. I read so many theories, success rates, likelihoods of being totally bilingual, etc but getting to this stage has been easy for us, it wasn’t even a conscious decision to do it one way or another. For fear of sounding smug, are we just lucky or is this typical? I am interested to know in order to advise friends with children.

    • Rita

      Hi Sarah, thank you for your comment. Very many bilinguals, me included, have grown up without their parents planning it or even paying much attention to how it happened. When the circumstances are right, children become bilingual, just like in my and your own family’s case. However, this is not something everyone can take for granted, because the circumstances are so different. So yes, in a way we have been lucky, and no, you do not sound smug! You should definitely take the credit for your son learning English so well. Without your consistent language use, he would not have become fluent in English.

      • Jennifer Blake

        I recently met a child whose primary caregivers, Mom and grandma speak to her only in English. Dad, who is working all day speaks English along with TV and other electronics. The child is just barely three and is reported to understand both languages equally, but will only speak in English. Is it typical for a child to choose only one language despite exposure? It would seem to me that if she did speak in one language only, that it would be Spanish…

    • Chris

      Hello everyone

      after 11 years of thinking we were mixing OPOL and ML@H, I actually discover we’ve been doing 2P2L – and it works! Like Rita says, we didn’t pay too much attention to how it happens – I now realise with hindsight how we did it. But Sarah, the thing I would always add is the need to ensure your child is bicultural as well. I’ve said this before on other replies (so apologies if I repeat myself), but I’ve found biculturalism more difficult to ensure than bilingualism. Any festival is a good festival to celebrate (St George, St Patrick etc., as well as Halloween, the Olympics in English, the Royal Wedding – anything you can think of!). We’ve just come back from a week in the UK and – totally by chance – chose the week of the General Election. My two daughters (12 and 9) were hooked! Both were still watching the results at 2 in the morning. At the election of 2010, I wrote to the Houses Of Parliament Education Unit, and they sent me a great pack for kids about how elections work. We were also in Kent, and went to see Dickens World and the Canterbury Tales museum – both are highly recommended. My ‘goal’ has been to have children who can ‘think’ like Brit kids (as well as like French kids, obviously!). They will have – as far as possible – the same cultural references as Brit kids. Loads of books, magazines, subscriptions (and just a little dose of TV…).

      Best wishes


      • Rita

        Hi Chris

        thank you for your insightful comment! I absolutely agree with you about the importance of biculturalism – as I often say “language and culture go hand in hand”. To fully understand and appreciate one you need the other. Your kids are lucky to have such an enthusiastic and engaged father and they will thank you for everything you do for them later on!

        All the best to you and your family

  3. Latifa


    I’m very glad I found this article as it touches on some questions that have been bugging me ever since my daughter (18mths) was born.

    My husband (Spanish) and I (bilingual English/German) live in Brussels and so far we’ve been using a fairly strict OPOL system with me speaking English to my daughter and my parents speaking German. She attends a French nursery five days a week.

    So far it has led to uncomfortable feelings (me for deliberately not speaking my emotional native language) and my parents for speaking German in the presence of my husband and therefore feeling that they are excluding him from the conversation. When we sit down at the dinner table it’s difficult to figure out which language to speak to whom and can mean that I have to switch a lot.

    All this has led me to question the OPOL dogma and consider speaking to my daughter in German some of the time. At some point I felt so conflicted about it that I could barely talk to my daughter at all!

    To add to our complications, my husband himself is bilingual (Spanish Basque) having learned basque from nursery age all the way up to university level (though nobody in his family speaks it). I think that it’s easy enough to justify not passing on the language since it isn’t spoken in the family or community (though I know that for my husband it has some cultural significance). On the other hand, German is the language I speak with both my parents so it would be an important tool in fostering a relationship with my parents. I myself have very good German comprehension but feel rusty when I speak it because my professional and social life is entirely centred around English.

    A final, minor layer of complexity is my own “failed bilingual” background. My parents tried OPOL (German – Bengali) for about a year or two and gave up in favour of just German, which was at the time the community language as well. I became fluent in German, acquired passive knowledge of Bengali and later became fluent in English, when I moved to the UK aged 12 (having previously had some exposure in India and through books).

    All this makes it very hard to actively “suppress” part of my daughter’s linguistic heritage but at the same time I also want to be practical and realistic!

    Any help or advice would be much appreciated!

    • Rita

      Dear Latifa

      Thank you for your question and for your kind feedback. I am always delighted to hear that my posts have been of help! To be fair to all parents who contact us with questions, we answer them in the order they arrive. Your query will be featured in the Q&A section on Thursday the 3rd of November. You will find a link to the Q&A on the homepage on that day.

      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 get in touch and I will send you some further details.

      Kind regards,

      • Latifa

        Dear Rita,

        Thank you. Of course, I’d be more than happy to wait. (I found the ‘ask the linguist section of the website a bit later and meant to re-post there).

        Perhaps as a further point of useful information, I could add that I have tried speaking to my daughter in German when it’s just the two of us or when there are other German speakers around. It felt a bit artificial so I’m still not sure if this is going to be the right approach. I’m also not desperate for h to learn all the languages at once but I’d like my parents to be able to baby sit and speak to her in German without having to worry too much.

        One thing I’m considering is enroling my daughter in a bilingual school and choosing German as her second language. My friends in Brussels are all English speaking and we don’t see my parents ofen enough to give her enough exposure. I don’t want my duaghter to associate German only with my parents as the generational divide may make her reject the language altogether. I think that I never learned Bengali very well because my exposure was limited to just one setting (our trips to Bangladesh).

        Regarding my husband’s not speaking Basque, he feels relatively at peace with this decision though it’s a bit strange when we meet up with friends who choose to speak Basque (not Spanish) to their children!

        It would be great to hear any ideas you might have to help make things a bit easier at the dinner table, especially when my German parents come to visit. I sometimes drive myself crazy switching languages: English (with my daughter), Spanish (with my husband) German (with my parents).

        Once again, thank you very much!

  4. vivian

    This article was so interesting, thank you. I am also wondering what strategy to take. I am a native speaker English speaker who grew up bilingual in English and Assyrian. My husband is German, but speaks English to a native level. I am the stepmother to his lovely 6 year old (monolingual) German speaking son, and I am pregnant with our first child together. I speak only German to his son (my German is not perfect, but we live in Germany and English causes him a little anxiety) and mainly in English to my husband, unless my stepson is around (then I switch back to German). My ideal situation would be if my husband and stepson spoke to our child in German, and I spoke to my child in Assyrian and English. I worry about the success of this model, however, as I got a mixture of Arabic and Assyrian from my parents, but am not fluent in Arabic, despite being able to get the gist of most conversations and have very good Arabic pronunciation in Arabic when I do speak it (what little I do).
    I love languages and I absolutely want my child to speak Assyrian as it is not only cultural important but somewhat of a dying language….not sure of how to approach all of this…
    Thanks again for this article and all of the wonderful and helpful input!!

    • Rita

      Dear Vivian

      Thank you for your message – as mentioned above, we now answer all qualifying questions through the Q&A section, and in the order they arrive.

      Your query will be featured in the Q&A section on Thursday the 2nd of April. You will find a link to the Q&A on the homepage on that day.

      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 get in touch and I will send you some further details.

      Kind regards

  5. Karen McNeil

    This is something of the strategy my husband and I were using (he’s a native speaker of the minority language, non-native speaker of majority language, I’m the opposite, so we tend to speak a mix of both to each other and the children). But we’ve recently decided to switch to using the minority language only at home, because it was just too easy to slip into speaking ML most of the time, and so too difficult to make sure the kids were getting enough exposure to the ml. We were at the point where the kids (3.5 and 2 yo) understood the ml but would answer in ML. And they haven’t even started school yet — it would have been way worse after.

    This is not to say that this strategy wouldn’t work for other people, just that it didn’t work for us because we didn’t have the discipline to speak ML some of the time, without it becoming most of the time. For us, cold turkey was necessary. 🙂



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