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OPOL Method, One Person One Language

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What is OPOL – One Person One Language?

If you have been reading up on the methods of raising bilingual children, you have probably heard of the OPOL method, (One person, One language), which is one of the most popular. OPOL is exactly how it sounds, each person speaks one language, (usually their most dominant language) to your child. Whether it be a parent, grandparent, other family member, friend, or teacher, it is the same approach. For example I am a native English speaker and speak to my children only in English. My husband is a native Italian speaker and speaks only Italian to them.

Most of the time with OPOL, each person will speak in their native language, however for parents who speak multiple languages they usually choose the one they feel most comfortable speaking, the language they are more emotionally attached to.

OPOL can also work with non-native speakers where one parent speaks another language and wants to pass it onto their children. Even if they are a non-native speaker, some parents who are fluent enough, may choose to speak their second language rather than their native language in order for their children to learn it.

Does the OPOL method really work?

While no method can guarantee the success of bilingualism, research conducted by Annick De Houwer  who studied more than 2000 families, concluded that 75%  of the children brought up with the OPOL approach became bilingual depending on how strictly it was followed.

For the OPOL method to be successful, there needs to be consistency. Each person needs to stick to the one language when speaking to your child and never switch to another. Initially children will usually mix and respond in the “wrong language” however, with consistency they will begin to associate people to languages, and start to understand which person they should speak with, in which language.

What are the problems with the OPOL method?

One of the main problems with OPOL is that it can be difficult to stick to only one language. When in a group of friends, or out in the community for example where others do not speak the language, you may feel awkward or rude speaking with your child in a language nobody else can understand.  Your child might also feel embarrassed and refuse to speak with you in front of other people.

The other main problem with OPOL, is that there is usually one language that gets more exposure, which means there will be one language stronger than the other. In bilingual families there isn’t often enough “one on one time” with each parent speaking only the one language, usually children are in a mixed language environment. While for the majority language this isn’t too much of a concern, the parent, or person, who is speaking the minority language will have to work harder to give more exposure to their language.

What can you do to make sure OPOL work for you?

OPOL leads to success through the strict separation of the languages, consistency, and exposure. Ensure each person is consistent in speaking with your child in one language, and make sure they get enough exposure to each language, especially the minority language.

Our family is very strict in following the OPOL method and so far it seems to be working well for us. In our case, I am the parent who speaks the language with the least exposure. I have to make an extra effort to provide the need for the minority language. I make sure I speak only English to my children, AT ALL TIMES. When we are outside at the park with other kids, when we are out with friends who speak only Italian, and when we are at the dinner table with their grandparents who don’t speak or understand a word of English. Even if I am having a conversation with everyone else in Italian, I switch to English when addressing my children.

Now two and four years old, they understand perfectly that they should speak with their father and I in different languages, to the point that if I joke and say something in Italian they look at me confused and say “No Mummy in English”

And if OPOL isn’t working?

If you think you cannot provide enough exposure to the language you speak when using the OPOL method,  you may need to introduce another person who speaks your language. It may not always be possible, but you could try to find a social group, or a language tutor, or even just other friends for them to play with who speak the same language so they can get that little extra exposure and improve their fluency.

If you are finding it hard to follow OPOL, and being consistent in separating the languages, try another method such as Minority Language at Home MLAH. Let me know how you go, I would love to hear from you

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12 Comments

  1. Eddynson

    Thank you, Chontelle! I’m a Venezuelan English teacher who wants my 9-month-old daughter to speak Shakespeare’s language as well as she’ll speak Cervantes’s one! I’m that parent who speaks almost only English at home, but, as her granny also lives with us, I found it very diffficult to make my child to be exposed to English during the day, since they are the ones who take care of her mostly… So, I decided to oblige them to change the language of TV shows to English (Masha’s, for Example). So, most of the TV she watches during the day is in English. I also make her listen to “Adventures in Odyssey”, which is a great option for my baby to learn values in English by listening to dramatized stories. I’m just waiting for the time when she starts speaking, to see how much we have worked on bilingual development…

    • Hi Eddyson,
      It sounds like you are very motivated. Your daughter is still young, I don’t think TV is going to have much of an effect at this age. I would recommend that you spend as much one on one time with her talking and interacting using English. And even when others are around speaking another language, stick to English with her as much as possible. Young children need as much “human interaction” as possible to acquire a language. This really is the crucial period. Once she starts speaking then screen time can definitely be used to your advantage giving her more English exposure. Good luck with it, I would love to hear an update when she does start to talk 🙂
      Chontelle

  2. Briana

    Hello there! I was raised to be bilingual, speaking only Spanish at home to my parents and family and then both English and Spanish at school since I was in a dual language program from K-8th grade. Since I spent so much more time exposed to Spanish (all the time at home and half of the time in school) versus English, it has become my most natural language to speak even when I am fluent in English as well. On the other hand, my husband’s native language is Russian. He grew up in Russia speaking only that language up until he came to the U.S 11 years ago. Starting from very basic English, he has become almost fluent and we communicate mostly in English. He understands some Spanish and can say some basic words and put together some common phrases if needed and I too can understand some Russian and also use some Russian words in our daily conversations (sometimes being able to form phrases with slight errors.) We both are able to read each other’s language even if not understanding the content.

    We wish to raise our 2 month old baby, trilingual. I have read a lot about OPOL and the benefits and other many posts about raising multilingual children etc, etc but can’t seem to find something that specifically elaborates on the relationship and communication between all THREE (mother, father and baby) in the common language, per say English.

    I would really like to hear your thoughts and any advice or tips you can share with me. I so appreciate it beforehand!

    Thank you ☺

  3. Renny

    I’m Indonesian and my husband’s Hispanic. I do my best to speak Indonesian to my daughter (20 months) but my husband barely speak Spanish to her if at all. He’s afraid that she’ll have problem speaking English. I told him it’s impossible because we live in US where everyone outside is speaking English. So she would be exposed to English after all. Am I right about this? Will OPOL work in our household? I really want my daughter to speak both of our languages and English.

    • Hi Renny,
      From what you have explained it is possible. If you use OPOL with you each speaking your native languages, your daughter should pick them both up at home. As you mentioned, English is the community language so it will be everywhere and eventually it will become the dominant language when she starts school and starts meeting friends.
      If your languages are important, I would advise being quite consistent speaking them both at home only, and leaving English to the community. If your husband is really concerned, perhaps you could join a play group or mothers group where she can be exposed to some English in the meantime.
      If you are interested, join our community group for parents raising bilingual kids, where we discuss these types of questions in more detail: https://www.facebook.com/groups/bilingualkidspot/ Good luck!

  4. Paula Bertoni

    Hi Chontelle! Thank you for your precious advice! I really enjoyed your text. My name is Paula and I live in Brazil. My baby will soon be born and my husband and I have decided that I will be the one to only speak in English with the baby while he will speak in Portuguese with him. But I have a doubt: being Portuguese our mother tongue to which he will naturally be exposed to when interacting with the community and his grandparents, should we speak only English at home? I mean, while having dinner, for example, should my husband and I only speak English? Even using OPOL, should we choose for one common language to be spoke at home?
    Thank you in advance!
    All the best,
    Paula

    • Hi Paula,
      If Portuguese is going to be the community language, then there is no harm making English your “family language” Eg you speak English and your husband Portuguese, but then when you are altogether speak English together. This would give that little extra exposure to English that your child will eventually need 🙂

  5. Andrea Torres

    Hi Chontelle!! We live in a Spanish speaking country but I have an intermediate level in English since our daughter was born I have spoken to her only in English, now she is 5 1/2 and she communicate in both languages but now she prefers to speak in Spanish with her dad than in English with me I feel sad and I’ve felt wishes to quit. Do u have any advice for me to get her interested again? Thanks a lot!

    • Hi Andrea,
      First of all, you have done a fantastic job if you have taught her English as a non English speaker!
      I know personally how hard it is speaking a non native language with your children, there are just some topics are easier to speak about in your native language. So I congratulate you on that!
      Now that she speaks English you could introduce other outside resources to help you. Does she learn English at school or is there an English program or mothers group around? Are you able to meet other people who speak English to immerse her a little bit more in the language?
      Have you thought about travelling to an English speaking country. I guess it depends where you live and your finances, but this is a great way to show the worth of a language and give her full immersion. It is amazing what a couple of weeks in a full English speaking environment will do.
      Cartoons and movies can help too, if you allow screen time make sure all cartoons and movies are in English! It is passive exposure but still can help.
      Finding a skype friend or a penpal is also another idea. And buying her favourite books in English too, let her choose them 🙂
      The idea is creating a need to speak the language in a fun way!
      I hope these ideas help, feel free to join our community group for more ideas https://www.facebook.com/groups/bilingualkidspot/

      • Andrea Torres

        Thank u so much I ll start looking for those resources u just mentioned and I have a new feeling after reading u that I cant stop. Happy to hear somebody cares about this for me .

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