language-processing-mainHow far can OPOL go for most people, and how rigid should we be with it? Is there even a “right answer” to this question? Certainly there are a million viewpoints on it.  OPOL is the preferred choice for many bilingual families (as I wrote in my previous blog: Do I confuse my kids?), but it is not the only choice.

George Saunders wrote in his book “Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens” that the “one person, one language” approach “ensures that the children have regular exposure to, and have to make use of each language. This is particularly important for the minority language, which has little outside support.” This is a logical approach, but is not always possible.

Many people believe that it is unnatural to refuse to speak anything of another language to your children, especially when the setting demands some kind of conversation in a second language. In a study published in the Infant Mental Health Journal, Naomi Goodz found that fathers tend to adhere more strictly to the “one person, one language model” than mothers. Even when parents reported strictly following a “one person, one language” scheme, naturalistic observations found repeated instances of language mixing in both parents. For monolingual families living in another country this is a daily occurrence: in order to speak to the German- speaking Kindergarten teachers I switch to German in front of and with my children, and when we travel to Spain/ Latin America both I and my husband speak Spanish when appropriate, teaching our children the words for certain basic things at the same time. My 4-year old now loves to greet me with Hola, and tells me: “Vamanos, rapido!”, when I’m taking too long with something.

An acquaintance told me that in her situation (Turkish- speaking Mum, Spanish- speaking Dad, living in the UK) they try to speak only their mother tongue with their children, but “sometimes cheat”! Why is it that we have this negative idea about speaking another language in front of our children, like it is going to poison them to our own mother tongue? We shouldn’t regard speaking another language to our children as cheating- passing on that idea to them at the same time will no doubt have a negative viewpoint on the way they see the languages we speak to them too.

Another friend told me that she usually mixes up their three home languages, depending on the situation. Even for story time, sometimes they read books in the minority language, sometimes in the host country’s languages. And when they are around local people- in the park, shopping etc.- she cannot help but say the same things to her children in the local language. It is what works for her family.

One of the reasons for my love of language is the flexibility of it- especially English where we steal words from other languages and change them to suit our needs. I remember when living in Japan for 2 years I and my group of friends created a new verb; to shink… AKA to take the shinkansen train (waaay too long). Strange?- Yes. Beautiful?- Definitely. In fact, as a clever friend of mine told me recently- where would the English language be without this acceptance of new words, not only created from new situations like the language of computing etc, but also from other languages? We would have no pyjamas, we wouldn’t live in bungalows, and we wouldn’t be able to drink tea. No-one would go on safari, and we wouldn’t eat bananas, pizza, cookies or hamburgers!

An inevitable result of contact with foreign cultures, we have been borrowing and using foreign words for centuries and today words continue to enter the English language. The English language is itself a composite of several languages that dominated the British Isles during its history: Anglo-Saxon, Norse, French and Latin. We don’t even have to speak the source language to use them; in fact, many times we don’t even know the word we are using has been borrowed from another language. And the same happens in other languages too, as we can see by taking a closer look at our own vocabulary. The Germans use a handy to make phone calls; a Japanese worker is known as a salaryman. The French have le weekend, and Italians go footing!  Beautiful!

As my favourite saying goes, there are many ways to skin a cat, and so there are a multitude of strategies for raising bilingual children. Do your best, make it fun and necessary to speak your languages, and realize that your methods may change and adapt as your child gets older. If you prefer OPOL then go for it (trying a variety of methods: Keeping the languages separate) , if not, then do what comes naturally. Above all, remember to keep it fun- nothing kills learning quite as effectively as knowing that you are learning!