Bilingual_kidMy son is only 1  1/2, but already has a thousand nicknames. It seems to run in our family, the nickname thing. I have been Gorg all my life, and my sister is Monster (you have to know her to understand!). But how does Sausage/ Bumble/  Fattypuff/ Sassafras/ Saskie know his REAL name? He does though- somehow he manages it- picking the right word from plenty of options.

Kids thrive on consistency, and are often better behaved when they have a good routine to follow. By that count, the language that we teach and model for them should follow the same consistent path, and by that I mean hearing one language spoken to them, so that they can learn to speak it properly themselves. However, this is fraught with difficulties and obstacles, when you consider that many families these days have two home languages (as with many of my friends here in Vienna who have an Austrian parent and an English-speaking parent), or if not that then two accents/ dialects for the same language (as with me and my husband).

Still, there can be consistency found in a multilingual family, in a variety of ways, with each parent speaking his own language to the children, and deciding which of the two languages they will speak to each other, or other similar systems to help children decide which language is most appropriate in any given situation. Many linguists and early childhood educationalists believe in the OPOL route, but that isn’t always possible, or even always sustainable.

So what’s the big deal about OPOL anyway? Is it really the way forward? Are other methods just as effective? Here’s a brief run-down of the two most popular methods:

  1. One Person, One Language (OPOL) is the most common family language system currently in use. For instance, my friend Miguel speaks his native Spanish to his children, while his wife speaks French. They consistently speak only one language to the children (as do all caregivers). Sometimes OPOL requires extra language input, such as going to playgroups in that language, visits from family, a trip to a country where that language is spoken, or a native speaking nanny or au-pair. It helps tremendously for your child to hear that his parent isn’t the only one who speaks this language. Kids are clever little creatures who are quite capable of reasoning that they don’t really need to know a language if it is only spoken by one other person. This system can get into trouble when other family members feel left out. A friend’s Spanish- speaking mother-in-law doesn’t like the times when her grandchildren are speaking their second language- English- as she doesn’t understand. Should families change their routine to help others join in, or stick to their guns?
  2. A second option, slightly less common but also successful is Minority Language at Home (ML@H). It simply means that of the two mother tongue languages, everyone speaks the language used less at home, even if this language is not the native language of both parents. It is probably the most reliable method for raising truly native speaking children since it ensures consistent interaction from birth until the child leaves home. However, ML@H parents have to be able to calm their doubts and stay the course unwaveringly. When your child isn’t speaking the community language on the same level as his or her monolingual peers (generally the ML@H child doesn’t reach parity with them until around 5 years of age), it’s difficult not to worry. It sometimes feels like your child is falling behind with the community language because, when he is really small, he won’t hear it spoken as much as his peers. However, everything will change when he starts Kindergarten, as at such an early age the child will be able to pick up the new language quickly and use it in a similar manner as those he plays and communicates with. Even when you know that your child is going to catch up, it can be daunting to watch him struggle. Some parents fear that he will never learn the primary language, even though this really only occurs when children are isolated from the primary language within a minority speaking community. It’s a hard option, emotionally and practically, but many believe it to be the most successful one.
  3. Frankly, any pattern that works for your family, and provides enough interaction in the second language is fine. Examples of such variations are: (1) one language is spoken every day, the other on extended holidays to another country; (2) one language is spoken in a certain location (e.g. if the children attend an immersion program/ kindergarten etc.), the other at home. Friends of mine raised their children in a Spanish/ French speaking home, while living in Mexico. For work they relocated to the USA, and enrolled their children into a French/ English school, keeping Spanish to be spoken at home. Their son, aged 5, refused to speak Spanish for a long time, saying he didn’t need it- until they went to Mexico to visit friends. He was so proud to be able to communicate with the children of the family friends- that holiday transformed his attitude toward the language, and he improved rapidly during his stay there.

I speak to my kids in a combination of English and German with a smattering of Spanish thrown in for good measure… none of the OPOL system for us. But that’s not possible anyway, given that I and my husband are both native English speakers. I hope that I am not confusing my children too much with my linguistic changes, but I see them thriving, and my 4-year old happily speaking German with her Kindy peers, and I choose to continue in the same vein. She shows an interest in other languages, mainly because she has grown up hearing lots of different languages spoken, and I hope very much that she (and my son) will grow up keen to become multi-lingual and balanced.