Adapting the OPOL Language Strategy

The OPOL approach is probably one of the most well known language strategies used by parents raising bilingual children. It is as simple as it sounds, one person speaks one language to the child. You can read more in detail about this approach in this post (OPOL – One Person One Language).

Many parents though, think that this is the only way for children to grow up to be bilingual, and worry that they will fail their children if they don’t follow it strictly, when it’s certainly not the case.  While OPOL does work for many families, not all parents can be consistent with it, which is ok. There are actually many  adaptions of the OPOL language strategy that families can use depending on their circumstances. Below are some scenarios. Insert your own language to replace the examples.

Adapting OPOL when parents don’t understand each other’s languages

It can be really frustrating when a parent cannot understand the conversation with their partner and child. So there are a couple of ways you can handle it if this is the case for you.

Scenario 1

Parent A speaks Italian, Parent B Speaks German.
The common language between them is German.
Parent B does not understand Italian.

In this case the parents can use the OPOL language strategy when alone with the child, and then when talking as a family together they can use German as it is the common language. This way Parent B does not feel left out if they don’t speak Italian

One thing to note using this strategy is that Italian will have very little exposure compared with German. Therefore it is extremely important that Parent A has as much one on one time with the child in order to provide enough quality exposure. Remember quality is better than quantity.

Recommended: 
Raising bilingual kids with limited language exposure

Scenario 2

Parent A speaks Italian, Parent B Speaks German.
The community language, and language spoken between them is English.
Neither speaks the other’s native tongue.

In this case parents usually decide on a family language. When each parent is speaking with their child alone, they speak their native language, using the OPOL language strategy. When both parents are together with the child, they speak the family language. In the case above the family language would be English. This way everyone understands each other.

Again as in the first scenario, parents should provide children with as much one on one time together in order to be exposed with each of the minority languages.

Recommended:
Tips to Improve the Minority Language

Adapting OPOL when there are other people around who don’t speak the language

If you are a family who use OPOL strictly at home, but the community language is different to the one you speak, here are a few ways to handle it.

Scenario

Parent A speaks Italian, Parent B Speaks German using OPOL, but community language is English

In this case each parent can continue speaking with the child in their native language when they are alone, or at home. But then when they are out or other children or friends are over, switch to the community language, English.

While you may think this may confuse your child, it won’t be the case because of the context. They will understand there is a time and place to use each language.

Adapting OPOL when one parent speaks the two minority languages

This is common with bilingual or multilingual parents who would like to pass on more than one language.

Scenario

Parent A speaks English, Italian and German, Parent B Speaks only English. The community language is English.

In this case Parent A is speaking both minority languages. There are a couple of options which combine the Time and Place Method with the OPOL approach.

A – Speak each language for a week or two at a time.
Eg: One week speak exclusively Italian, the next week speak exclusively German. Two weeks can also work. The main thing is consistency during this time, sticking to the one language as much as possible, and encouraging your child to use the language you are speaking.

B – Select a time of the day, or a place where you speak each language.
Eg: You speak Italian in general around the house, but go to a German play group or activity group together where you spend time speaking German with others.

Another idea is to create a language room or corner where you go to speak German together. This room, or corner of the room could be filled with language resources in the target language such as books and posters. It should be a place where your children are happy to be and associate this place with the target language.

Recommended:
Language Resources for Bilingual Kids – 15+ Languages!

Changing Language Strategies

If the OPOL language strategy isn’t for you, don’t be afraid to stand back and reassess your family situation. There are many other strategies you can follow. Take a look at my post on Language Methods where you can read more in detail. These may be a better fit for your family.

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