A Guide to OPOL: Raising a Bilingual or Multilingual Child
Raising a child to speak more than one language can bring them amazing benefits later in life, and you won’t regret it. But it can be hard to know where to start. There are various methods you can use to teach your child a second language, and I’ll try and go over some of the most common ones here as well as give some theoretical examples of these techniques being used.
Why should I raise my child to speak multiple languages?
There are a lot of reasons to raise a child with multiple languages, but among these, the biggest reason is probably the simple fact that it’s easier for them! There will never again be a time in their life where their brains can actually take in so much information at once without going insane.
Teaching them a second language will not only benefit them significantly later in life, but it will also change the way they think and see the world, from a very young age.
FAQ: Teaching Your Child Multiple Languages
What is OPOL?
OPOL stands for “one parent, one language” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. One parent will speak one language with the child, and the other parent will speak a different language. The important thing is to be consistent with it! You need the child to learn that they can only speak to their Mother in her language and to Father in his. This won’t last forever, but until they’re old enough to understand the difference and your reasoning behind it, you should stick with it.
What if I only speak one language?
If this is the case, there are a few different paths you can take. First off, if your partner speaks a second language. Simply have them speak ONLY the second language when speaking directly to the child, just like you would with OPOL. I’d also highly encourage you to make an effort to learn the language yourself.
In the case that neither you, nor your partner speak a second language. It’s still possible to teach your child another language through a language tutor or exposure from living in a location where the language is spoken.
How many languages can a child learn?
There is definitely no perfect answer to this question, but in general I’d say “A LOT!” Many people grow up only speaking one language, so being fluent or even proficient in another one or two languages is going to make things easier for the child later in life. Especially when it comes to them wanting to learn even more languages.
The reason there isn’t a perfect answer to this question, is because of the sheer variety of outcomes that can come from raising your child with more than one language. I’ll provide a few basic examples of how a child might end up multilingual.
Example 1: Mom speaks French with child. Dad speaks English with child.
Example 2: Mom and Dad speak English for a week, then switch to French for a week.
Example 1: Mom speaks German with child. Dad speaks French. Mom and Dad speak English with each other.
Example 2: Mom speaks German with child. Dad speaks French. Family lives in the U.S. and child learns English in school.
Example 1: Mom speaks Turkish for a week and Dad speaks Russian. The next week Mom speaks French and Dad speaks Spanish.
Example 2: Grandparents speak Russian with child. Mom speaks French, and Dad speaks Ukrainian. Family lives in Italy and child learns Italian in school.
Hopefully you see the amount of potential in these examples but AGAIN, these are simply examples of how certain situations might lead to the child learning two or more languages. Four languages is definitely not the maximum, bit I’d say it’s a reasonable number to stop at. However, I will give an example of a hypothetical child that is fluent in TEN languages, just for fun!
Example: Mom speaks French and Greek with the child, switching weekly. Dad speaks Hungarian and Arabic, also switching weekly. Parents speak English with each other. Child has an older sibling that was raised in Russia, and learned Russian and Ukrainian in school. Older sibling switches languages weekly with the child. Child is raised in Switzerland and ends up learning Swiss German and Standard German in school. The child has a private after school tutor for Swedish.
Now, before you go running off to your spouse to tell them you figured out how to make the perfect prodigy child, you have to keep in mind how insanely complex and unrealistic this situation is. You must also note that the child will most likely not be fluent in all of these languages, despite some of them being necessary to communicate with family members. And while this hypothetical child would definitely be proficient in all ten languages, he/she would need a lot of practice to keep all of them in check.
Won’t my child get confused? What about language mixing?
I decided to answer this two questions together, because they really do go hand in hand. Teaching your child two or more languages can be confusing at first, but they will quickly pick up the difference between the languages. In the household, you might find that the child starts to favor one language over the other and might stop speaking one of the languages completely for a few weeks. This is completely normal and part of the journey. It just shows their knowledge of the two separate languages.
It also can lead to what is known as language mixing. Multilingual families will often find that certain things are simply easier to express in one language versus the other. When children start doing this at a young age, you might feel obligated to correct them, but it’s better to just be consistent with the language you speak to them in. They already know that they are mixing the languages, but they simply find it easier to use one word or phrase over the other. So don’t worry, it’s just a phase of learning that they’ll quickly grow out of.
What is a majority language?
In some cases, your child might be exposed to one language significantly more than the other. This is called the majority language and it can make things stressful for the parent teaching the minority language. The simplest way to fix this is to get the child more exposure to the minority language.
You might do this by interacting with the child more in the minority language or having them speak with tutors or penpals. If you were planning on doing OPOL with your children in the future, you might want to consider only speaking to them in the minority language instead, and teaching them the basics in the other language. Here’s an example of how this might work.
Example: Japanese couple living in the US wants their child to be fluent in English and Japanese. They planned on doing OPOL but after realizing that the child will be exposed to English significantly more than Japanese, they decide to both speak Japanese directly to the child and English with each other.
In this example, the child still gets English exposure, and once they start school, they’ll quickly pick up on the language and some words they may not have picked up from their parents. Since the parents only spoke Japanese with the child for the first few years of its life, the minority language is now engrained in them to a point where it will be extremely hard for them to forget.
If the parents were doing OPOL, the child would quickly see how common English is outside of the household, and might start to use that language more. Having a parent that is speaking only English with the child makes it extremely easy for the minority language to get left behind.
Children pick up languages quicker than adults, so use this to your advantage and give your child a head start. They’ll thank you later. If your partner want to teach them a language that you don’t know, take up the opportunity to learn it with them. You’ll have more fun connecting with your child and lover that way.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Levi Jeffers