Raising Bilingual Kids & Little Global Citizens

Bilingual Parenting, Getting Started, Language Strategies

Adapting the OPOL Language Strategy – Not All Families Can Stick To OPOL So Why Should They?


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.

They worry that they will fail their children if they don’t follow it strictly

But this is 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.

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.

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.


Parent A speaks Italian, Parent B Speaks German using OPOL, 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.


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.

Language Resources for Bilingual Kids

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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  1. Camila

    hi! Great article! Our baby arrives in October and we are looking forward to it, we live in Paraguay, and we have 2 official languages here, Spanish and Guarani. Our family is very multicultural, my dad speaks German and my mom fluent Guarani, my husband and I speak Guarani, Spanish and English. We want to to follow the OPOL – Parent A (me) speaks only english and Parent B (my husband) speaks only Spanish. But we were wondering, would it be too confusing if my dad spokes only German to our baby? My entire family (on my dad’s side) speaks German and it would be really good if our child could learn it.
    So, Parent A (me) speaks only english, Parent B (my husband) speaks only Spanish and Grandpa speaks only german? would that be okay?

  2. Lisa

    Hi, I am so glad I found this very informative website, it helps a lot to decide which method is best for us.
    In our scenario we live in the US and me and my husband are from Austria. We both speak German (native) and English. We are expecting our baby in September so we still have some time to decide which method would suit us best. The OPOL method seems the most suitable, the only concern that I have for whichever method we will decide on is that the language my husband and I speak to each other is an Austrian German accent which is not anything like the high German language. It would be like a third language and I don’t know if I should adapt my native accent to high German?
    Thank you very much for your advise. 🙂

  3. Len

    Thank you for the wonderful synthesis! We are using the 1st scenario. I speak Russian, my husband Romanian, the community and family language is Romanian. I speak Russian to our daughter when we are alone and with Grandma or some Russian friends. Daddy “caught” us talking one evening and he said it sounds like witchcraft. 🙂

  4. Lema

    I speak fluently French and Italian + conversational Farsi (I am from Afghanistan but my Farsi is not fluent as I do not practise enough), my husband speaks German and understands French and Italian but not Farsi, I don’t know any German at all. We live in France but will soon move to the US.
    Our common couple language is English.
    My son is 10 months old at the moment.
    My husband speaks in German to him when they are alone.
    I am being currently being schizophrenic and can’t decide on one language and am mixing them up… Can I speak to my son in several languages? I want him to learn Farsi so he understands my culture etc but he will have an Italian passport so he should know some italian and I would love for him to speak French fluently as I do as it has opened many doors for me and some of our cousins are growing up francophone.
    Can I speak to him in Farsi when we are alone, French and Italian when my husband is around (since he understands it?) Can I do, Farsi = when alone, French = mornings, Italian = afternoons? Or Farsi when alone, French during week days and Italian on weekends?
    He will learn english naturally from hearing my husband and I speak it to one another and in school anyways.
    Thank you for any advice!!


    hi great articles you have here, so informative 🙂 i have a 4 yr old daughter and 2 yr old son, Parent A can speak English and Tagalog (Native language of Philippines) and Parent B speaks English and we live in Australia.
    Is it too late to approach the OPOL strategies with our kids? I would love for them to learn to speak tagalog so its easier for my family back home to talk to them when we come visit.
    thank you

  6. Leticia


    I found your article very interesting and I would like to hear your opinion. My husband and I speak both Spanish (native), English and French. We live in the Netherlands and as neither of us speak Dutch we trust our baby will learn it at school, however we still want to give him a second language, so I speak spanish with him and my husband will start with English. But when we speak between the two of us we do it in our native language Spanish, is it ok?

    • Comment by post author

      Hi Leticia,
      There are many different scenarios. It all comes down to what you feel most comfortable with, and also which will give the most balanced exposure.
      It is important to give your child balanced exposure if you want him to become bilingual/multilingual. However it should be as natural as possible and I don’t recommend sacrificing your relationship in order to do this. So if you feel most comfortable speaking Spanish together, then do so.
      However it means your husband needs to make one on one time priority in order to give your little one more exposure to English. Or you can also find other outside resources such as a playgroup, an English speaking babysitter etc.
      If you like come and join our Facebook community group for more ideas: https://www.facebook.com/bilingualkidspot/
      Hope to see you in there.

  7. Sylvia

    I’m really struggling with what language to talk to my daughter. My native tongue is English, but I also speak some Italian and want her to learn since my family speaks it. My husband’s mother tongue is Farsi. We speak English to each other.

    We have an Italian au pair coming to help teach Italian, but my question is what language should I speak to my daughter in? She will learn English at school, but I feel strange talking to her in Italian since I can’t express myself fully. I also want to make sure she learns English properly since I have a good command of it.

  8. iliannaj

    Hi there, this is a great article! We are in the following scenario: Parent A speaks English and Bulgarian (native) and parent B speaks both English and Bulgarian (native). We live in the US and I am trying to decide what is the best way to communicate to my baby boy. He is 2 weeks old. Thanks in advance for any advice!

    • Comment by post author

      Hi Iliannaj,

      If you would like your little one to speak both English and Bulgarian fluently I would suggest the MLAH – Minority Language at Home strategy.
      So speaking Bulgarian at home, and then English in the community. Living in the US, English will be everywhere and it won’t be an issue having exposure to English. Your priority while he is young is giving him as much exposure to Bulgarian as possible.

      If you would like, come join us in our discussion group on Facebook. There are many other parents asking similar questions!


  9. Cindy

    Thank you for your sharing! What would you suggest in case of the following scenario? Parent A speaks Hindi, Parent B speaks Mandarin, and they only use English to communicate because they don’t speak each other’s language. They are planning to live in the US. But both of their families don’t speak English really well, they wish they can communicate with the kids.

    • Comment by post author

      Hi Cindy,
      You can still use OPOL. When you are each alone with your children speak your native language.
      When you are all together, you can either continue using your native language, or use English as your “family language” so that you can all understand each other. It is really a personal choice. Speaking your native languages all the time will give more exposure. Although the challenge is that you won’t understand each other. What you may find doing this though, is that you each start to understand enough of each other’s language and learn along with your kids, which is a great advantage too.
      If you plan to use English as your family language you will need to make sure that you each have enough one on one time with your kids to give them enough exposure.
      This can also be achieved with one on one time with each of your families too. And of course if you could find outside resources.
      Hope that helps 🙂

  10. Emma

    That’s a great article, as a multilingual mum-to-be I would really like to pass on two languages to my son, so I am considering two minority languages and his father will speak to him in the community language. Before reading this article I was thinking about talking one minority language in one room and the other one in the activity room but didn’t wanted to create confusion, switching languages every week or every two weeks seems like a better option!

  11. Sonia

    Hi! This is a great idea 🙂 thanks for sharing. What would you suggest in case of the following scenario? Parent A speaks English, Spanish (native) and some Danish. Parent B speaks English, Danish (native) and some Spanish. We clearly understand each other’s mother tongues. Community language is Danish. Parents speak English to each other. We mostly use OPOL with our 3 y/o and 1.5 y/o kids but want to enhance English and Spanish because they are the minority languages.

    • Comment by post author

      Hi Sonia,

      Thanks for your question, it seems like you have the right idea. There are different options, however it all depends on what you and your husband feel comfortable with.

      If Danish is the community language, I would try to eliminate Danish from the household completely to concentrate on your minority languages. So for example since you are a Spanish native, I would recommend speaking Spanish with your kids only and trying to have as much one on one time as possible. Then use English as your “family language or “home language”. In my opinion this would give your kids the most exposure to all three languages and the best chance of becoming fluent in all three.

      However, if your husband does not feel comfortable speaking English to your kids full time (or at least at home) and he prefers to speak Danish, you could follow OPOL with your native languages, then use English when you are all together. In this case Danish would be the stronger language by far as your children will not only hear it in the community but also at home, and it will be harder to strengthen Spanish and English. If you choose this option, you will need to find additional exposure especially for Spanish.

      I assume English is widely used in Denmark as well, so eventually your children will learn at school? It seems that you will need to be very strict with Spanish if this language is important to you because it will be the one with the least exposure.

      These articles may be of interest to you.

      Good luck, I would love to hear your progress.


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