Inside: What is the One Person, One Language bilingual parenting approach (OPOL), the pros and cons of OPOL, and tips for implementing OPOL in your family.
The One Person, One Language (OPOL) is a common bilingual parenting approach in which one caretaker speaks to a child in one language, and a second person speaks to a child in another language.
This approach is more commonly known as One Parent, One Language approach, but in some cases, it is not always the parent providing the exposure to a language. It could also be a grandparent, caretaker or another outside source; therefore, I personally prefer the term One Person, One Language.
Some examples of families raising bilingual kids using the OPOL approach:
- An American mother and an Italian father raising their kids in English and Italian in Italy.
- A Brazilian Father and an American mother raising their kids in Portuguese in the U.S.
- A French mother and a German father raising their kids trilingually in French and German in England. The kids learn English, the majority or community language, outside of the home.
OPOL is an excellent option for mixed-language families who want to raise a bilingual child, especially in families with a monolingual parent that only speaks the community language. It is also the most natural approach for mixed families because, in most cases, each person is speaking their native language.
Until you try to raise a child in your non-native language, you do not understand how wondrous it is to talk to your child in your mother tongue..
According to Adam Beck in Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability, OPOL has a success rate of 74.24%.
Now that we know the basics of OPOL, I would like to breifly talk about the history of OPOL. Then, I go into the pros and cons of OPOL. Then, I will conclude by offering some tips and advice on implementing the OPOL language in your household.
- Minority Language at Home Bilingual Parenting Approach
- 13 Facts Parents Who Want to Raise a Bilingual Child Need to Know
- 10 Misconceptions About Raising Bilingual Children
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The History of One Person, One Language
The One Parent, One Language bilingual parenting approach has been around for a very long time, but it was coined in 1902 by French linguist Maurice Grammont who theorized that by separating languages by parents from birth, parents could prevent code-mixing.
Over the decades, many linguists used this theory, and OPOL came to be known as the most effective approach to raising a true, simultaneous bilingual child.
However, this has been disproven over recent years. A study of 2,000 bilingual families conducted by Annick de Houwer states that 25% of the children raised with the OPOL bilingual parenting approach did not become bilingual.
Let’s take a further look into the pros and cons of OPOL.
Pros of the One Person, One Language Approach
- Exposure to two languages from birth.
Exposure is the key to bilingualism, and through the OPOL approach, children can receive roughly equal language exposure to both the target and the majority language from birth. Nonetheless, this varies depending on the family and environment.
- It is relatively straightforward.
OPOL is bound to few rules. One person speaks the target language, and another person speaks the majority language.
- Simultaneous bilingualism:
With OPOL, the child continuously hears both languages from birth, unlike the Minority Language at Home approach where the child is raised speaking the minority language first, then adding in the majority language.
- A natural approach
In most cases, parents are the native speakers of the language they speak with their children, making this approach more natural.
Cons of the One Person One Language Approach
- Children can become passive bilinguals.
If children do not receive enough exposure to the minority language, then they can become passive bilinguals. Passive bilingualism is when someone can understand a language but cannot communicate in it.
An example of a scenario that might result in a passive bilingual is: if the father is a minority language speaker and works longs hours. He is only home with the child for a maximum of four hours a day, in which not all are interacting with the child in the minority language.
Exposure is rarely equal.
Like I mentioned above, if there is less input in one of the languages, especially the minority language, the language will suffer.
Here is another scenario where this might happen: Cristina, a fellow bilingual parenting blogger, is raising her children using the OPOL approach. She is German, living in England with her monolingual, English-speaking husband. She is with the kids, speaking the minority language, German most of the time, but she struggles to get enough exposure in the German language due to lack of outside support or resources.
Exposure to the minority language can also diminish once children start school and use the majority language more. The minority language parent will have to put in even more effort to level the imbalance.
- The family dynamic can be significantly affected
Communicating in two different languages within one family can affect the family dynamic, especially if one of the parents does not understand the minority language. This can leave one parent feeling left out.
Cristina explained how tiresome it can get to always translate her conversations with her children back and forth to her husband.
This frustration might cause the minority language parent to use the majority language more frequently, which subsequently will lower the success rate of bilingualism.
Requires a lot of time, dedication, and effort on behalf of minority language-speaking parent.
- There will be outside pushback and situations where non-speakers are present
Regardless of the bilingual parenting approach you choose, there will always be people, particularly monolingual people, that do not understand why you are raising your kid in the minority language. So, you will need to plan what to do in certain situations, like when you are out and about, at the store, etc.
Turning to the majority language when in the presence of non-speakers might lower the importance of using the minority language in the bilingual child’s eyes and might result in them using the majority language more.
Tips for Using the One Person, One Language Bilingual Parenting Approach
I do not use the OPOL approach in my family. We use the MLAH approach, so I can only speak on behalf of my personal experiences when providing the following tips.
However, I can say that regardless of the approach you are using to raise your children bilingually, it is essential to:
Be consistent! Pick an approach and go full force with it, on a consistent basis!
If you are doing OPOL, do not sway from the language you are speaking to your child, especially if you are the minority language parent. You ARE their exposure. It will get frustrating and tiring at times, but you are doing a remarkable thing for your child. They will be forever thankful for your sacrifice and hardwork.
- Supplement with outside sources
If you are the minority language parent, look for outside support through a community group of people that speak the same minority language. Form playgroups, zoom calls, sleepovers, etc., in the minority language.
If you have the means, find a caretaker that speaks the minority language . Have them use it with your child all the time.
If you have family that speaks the minority language, invite them to over and ask them to talk about the minority language with your children.
Browse the web for support groups. You would be surprised at some of the free resources you can find from fellow bilingual parentings trying to help, like myself =)
If you can, travel to a place where the minority language is spoken, and stay a white if you can.
When Cristina realized that the balance of English and German and her home was starting to lean more towards English, she decided to go live with her family in Germany for two years. She said that this did wonders for her children’s bilingualism.
- Talk, talk, talk with your child about everything in the minority language!
It gets tiring, I know, but your children are listening and learning from your every word! Make use of this while they still listen!
- Celebrate your child’s bilingualism!
Let your child know, and let them know all the time, just how important and unique they are for speaking more than one language!
Read. Then read some more.
Playing is one of the most resourceful learning tools. Get on the floor and play with your child in the minority language!
I highly recommend loose parts play when interacting in the minority language!
- Do not give in to critics
Don’t let anyone’s monolingual miseries get in the way of your capability of raising your bilingual kid! Use it as a time to encourage and educate these critics about bilingualism and its benefits.
Well, I think I have covered everything that I needed to cover. Please let me know if I left anything out in the comments below.
Also, if you are raising a bilingual child, I want, and I need to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail here and let me know your story! And if you feel really compelled, write me a story about your bilingual journey. I can add it to this blog as a resource for other bilingual parents that might be in a similar situation!
“Adapting The OPOL Language Strategy, Not All Families Can Stick to OPOL So Why Should They?” Bilingual Kidspot, 4 Feb. 2021, bilingualkidspot.com/2017/08/07/adapting-opol-language-strategy/.
Beck, Adam. Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability: Ideas and Inspiration for Even Greater Success and Joy Raising Bilingual Kids. Bilingual Adventures, 2016.
Grosjean, François. “One Person–One Language and Bilingual Children.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 1 Apr. 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-bilingual/201504/one-person-one-language-and-bilingual-children.
King, Kendall A., and Alison Mackey. The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language. Collins, 2007.
Linguistic Society of America, www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/faq-raising-bilingual-children.
Pearson, Barbara Zurer. Raising a Bilingual Child: a Step-by-Step Guide for Parents. Living Language, 2008.
Rita, et al. “One Parent, One Language – OPOL Is Dead, Long Live OPOL!” Multilingual Parenting, 26 Mar. 2017, multilingualparenting.com/2015/04/15/one-parent-one-language-opol-is-dead-long-live-opol/