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 language strategies.
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 person, one language rule 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 there are other options including adaptions of OPOL, or trying another method such as Minority Language at Home MLAH.
Do you follow OPOL? Or do you use another language strategy? Let me know how you go, I would love to hear from you