Raising multilingual children using an adaptation of OPOL

Since this is one of the most frequently asked questions I get, I thought it might be helpful to explain how switching languages every two weeks works in our home.

Raising multilingual children using an adaptation of OPOL: switching languages every two weeks | Trilingual Mama

Raising multilingual children using an adaptation of OPOL: switching languages every two weeks | Trilingual Mama

Our basic linguistic set-up is Papa speaks only French with the children and Mama speaks two weeks in English and two weeks in Spanish with the children. Since we live in France, the children also hear and use French everywhere they go. When we lived in the United States, we used OPOL (one parent one language). I spoke exclusively Spanish with the children, my husband spoke exclusively French with the children and they hear English everywhere else they went. When we moved to France, we realized we would need to come up with a new plan if we didn’t want them to lose either their English or Spanish. And since both of these languages are an intimate part of who I am, I knew I wasn’t prepared to let either go.

And so I started speaking English or Spanish with the children every other day. But I quickly realized the mental gymnastics this represented for all of us and somewhere I had heard that one family would spend an entire month in a language. This seemed like too long to me, but I liked the idea and thought that maybe somewhere between one day and one month might be a good compromise. We settled on two weeks. We tried it, we loved it and we’ve never looked back.

Today we have four children ages 16 months to 13 years old and they are all trilingual (yes, even the baby in his own cute way!). Here are seven things we do that might help you use the same multilingual learning system in your home.

  1. Choose a time period that works for you and your children. Just because two weeks works for our family, doesn’t necessarily mean it has to work for you. I’ve heard of other families being successful with every other day. Try out a few different time periods and choose a rhythm that is comfortable for everyone.
  2. Commit to speaking the language everywhere you go. Whether we are out grocery shopping or taking a walk in the forest or just at home eating dinner together, we stay in the target language for the two week period. Sometimes it earns us some curious stares, but it’s also helped us to find friends that share our same passion for multilingualism.
  3. Use a calendar if necessary to help keep you on track. Dedicating equal amounts of time to both minority languages will be important to achieving the desired fluency. We don’t use a calendar because we seem to have developed a sort of bio-rhythm that just lets us know when it’s time to switch!
  4. Choose a set day during the week for switching. For us, that day has always been Saturday. We are usually all together and have more free time that allows us to focus all our energies on switching languages.
  5. Allow yourself time to make the switch. The first days of switching languages involve a good dealing of mixing the two languages because our minds are so set in the previous language that it’s difficult to start thinking and speaking in the new language. But that’s okay. Give yourself some time. It usually takes our family Saturday and Sunday and part of Monday before we have all made the mental switch.
  6. Give everyone a heads-up about the upcoming change. Friday night I will usually tell the children (and even my baby) that we’re switching to Spanish or English the following day. That way no one is surprised and we all start to mentally prepare for the big switch.
  7. Use visual aids or media to help you make the language switch. Signs that you post around the house or watching a movie in the new language can help everyone to make that mental transition. In our family, sometimes we’ll make a special effort to read books or listen to music in the specified target language for the two week period.
Raising multilingual children using an adaptation of OPOL: switching languages every two weeks | Trilingual Mama

This is about how excited my kids get when I tell them we’re switching to English!

Are you raising your family multilingually? Do you use OPOL or some other method? Have you ever tried switching languages?

37 Responses

  1. jelenapg says:

    This is really interesting, thanks for sharing. We use OPOL (each parent their native tongue at home plus the community language in school) but friends of ours with very interesting linguistic background (she has 3 mother tongues, plus his native language, plus the language the two of them speak to each other, plus the community language of the country they are in) have just had their first child and are a bit overwhelmed at the whole language issue with the child so I’ll be sure to share this with them.

    • Wow! Their situation sounds complex, but fascinating! I’m always amazed at couples who are able to build a relationship on a language not necessarily their own but chosen for the sake of communicating with each other when there is no language in common! I wish them all the best in their new multilingual parenting journey!

  2. bianca says:

    Thanks for sharing this useful informations! in our family its a bit too crowded, i’m romanian, my husband is chinese-dutch – born and raised in netherlands, we meet in London..so we spoke english, we move to The Hague and settle and now we have to daughters, one just turn 2, and the other 3 months, my husband speaks dutch but also english with the child, i speak english too with her because i thought my on language its not going to have a place, she hears dutch around, chinese here and there(grandparents are not too much around) and at this point im trying to find information about how can i improve this situation. i have the filling im not doing a good job, a bit disappointed, i would like to speak my own language, i’m not sure if i can stil introduce romanian, it may be too late?!

    • Hi Bianca! Don’t get down on yourself, you’re doing the best you can! What you need is a plan and it’s never too late! Yes, you can still introduce Romanian but you will have to do so gradually. Make sure it’s fun and playful for your daughters’ sakes! Maybe an idea would be to start reading lots of picture books with them in Romanian. Do you have any? Or just get some picture books in English and with a black marker write in the words for yourself. Start building your collection of children’s books, music, games, etc. Teach them games and songs you learned as a child and when you play with your girls, play with them in Romanian. Little by little it will become more natural for you and your daughters will begin to learn. They are still very young and will learn quickly.
      If you have any more questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.
      I try to include lots of ideas here on the blog, so please check back for new posts or look through the archives.
      I’d love to hear of your progress!
      Good luck!

  3. Blanca says:

    Hiya! I didnt get it, if you AND your partner are able to communicate in all the languages you switch to? My mothertongue is German and my partner’s Arabic, but we communicate in English with each other. I can only speak few words or Arabic and the same applies for his German. Additionally, we are not in an Arabic or German nor English speaking environment. What would you suggest to do in this case? Should I switch alone? one / two weeks of German? but their daddy wouldnt be able to switch with us.. :)

  4. Michele says:

    I’m interested in trying this – I am French/English, husband is German, we speak English together (he does not understand French). He speaks german to the kids, I speak English, we lived in London first and kids spoke English and understood german, we moved to Germany and now kids German stronger and they are beginning to reply to me in German (I can speak German but stick to English with kids). They are nearly 4, 2 and baby 5 mths. I want to intro French too but don’t know when and worried I’ll be struggling with 2 minority languages.

    • Maria says:

      Hi Michele,
      Switching every two weeks really makes it feel like you are only working with one minority language at a time because during the two weeks that you are in one of the minority languages, you only worry about that language. And then two weeks later when you switch, you forget temporarily about the first and focus all your energy on the second. Surprisingly, the children do not “lose” any of their language progress in the other language during those two weeks. I’m constantly testing as we switch to see what they have retained and I am always amazed. Also, the progress in one language seems to boost them to make additional progress in the other language. It really is a win-win situation. I hope it will work for you!

  5. christina says:

    Hello maria, this is an interesting article. Could you share a little more about the timing? How old were your children when you started this two-week plan? My boy is 11 months now. I speak Chinese to him. But would like to introduce english soon.

    • Maria says:

      I started my two-week plan when my two oldest were 4 and 2. We explained to them what we were doing and they caught on pretty quickly. With our two younger children we started when they were born. It is never too early or too late to start! Find a plan that works for you and your family and go for it!

  6. Bleuen says:

    Hi, this is very interesting, how do you think it would work for a single mum? I am French, currently living in England with my 3yr old who understands and speaks both French and English v well and my 4 month old. They see their dad, who is English, every other weekend, sometimes less often. I am planning to move back to France with the boys within the next year or so, to be closer to my parents. I am worried as there won’t be any English speakers in their daily life, although I am looking at bilingual schools and expat groups. Dad will visit every other month i think and will Skype often. I am fluent in English, and I am a language teacher so I am keen to try the two week switching system with them. Have you met single parents who successfully pass on their two or three languages to their children? Any tips? Many thanks.

  7. Vilma says:

    We tried the every second day too but found ut alook a bit overwhelmed. But since my English speaking husband works a week on a week off, we settled to swap the language weekly speaking Finnish when he is present as he understands it and speaking Swedish when he is away. Sometimes on longer family holidays we all get a bit confused but I find we have enough practice in them all anyway.

  8. Merily says:

    In my situation, we have currently Engish dominating at home and via media. I’m Estonian and my husband is Canadian, we live currently in Sweden with our 2 yrs old son.
    Recently I was suggested to communicate in Estonian only to my son as I am the only source in our family. I did that during his 1st year and then switched to English only (mostly) on my husband’s request as he was worried our son doesn’t get enough exposure. According to other bilingual parents, this worry was misplaced.
    I wonder now, in case I let him watch his favorite nursery rhymes or to read him books in English, would it counteract my Estonian only approach in teaching him Estonian? I have to admit that the selection in nursery rhymes in English is so much better than in Estonian children songs.

    Your comment is very much appreciated

    Thank you!

    • Maria says:

      I apologize for the delay in responding to your question!
      I think that you are fine to let him enjoy nursery rhymes in English. The multilingual journey should above all bring joy to the family! If you speak to your child in Estonian, he will hopefully develop a cultural and emotional tie with the language that will allow him to progress.
      One thing to take into consideration is that he will have different levels of proficiency in all his languages, but this is okay and actually very normal.
      Keep up the great work!

  9. Gabrielle says:

    I like this idea. What we’ve been doing is my husband speaks to the children in Russian, I speak to them in Spanish, and they hear English between the two of us, with the nanny, their grandfather and in some classes they’ve taken through the city. Both kids will begin preschool at a local AMI Montessori one week from today where they will be immersed in English (sadly). Our plan is to continue having my husband speak to them in Russian and I in Spanish. Fingers crossed the children retain both and don’t dump either in favor of English.

  10. Tatiana says:

    Hello, Maria, thanks for a very interesting post!

    I am struggling with this myself, as a bearer of two minority languages (English and Russian), living in France. My husband is French and speaks to our son (2 years old) in French. I am American but grew up speaking Russian at home. My initial plan was that I would speak solely Russian to my son and that he would get English through classes at school and through hearing my husband and I speak English to each other. (Before our son was born, we always spoke to each other in French, as my French is better than my husband’s English, but I have been really insisting that we speak English to each other, at least in front of our son, which is has been hard to stick to, for my husband especially. But he understands the benefits and wants to keep up the plan.) But I have felt a bit of frustration with my Russian-only-to-my-son plan, as my English is more advanced than my Russian (all my education was in English, I know more children’s songs in English and prefer to read in English), and I was worried that I would be presenting my son with a more limited vocabulary if I stick only to Russian. I should also mention that I am largely the only person my son communicates with in Russian, as my parents live in the US.

    After reading your post I decided to give your two-week/two-week system a try. I like it particularly for myself, as I feel it better reflects who I am, but I noticed that my son’s Russian vocabulary acquisition started to wane, especially because his French expression is growing by leaps and bounds (he goes to French daycare and is very close to his French grandmother). I’m afraid that by doing the 2 week/2 week system I am diluting what is already a pretty diluted situation for his Russian, and that English is such a common language that he will acquire it anyway. On the other hand, I have many more opportunities for him to interact with English-speakers in France than Russian-speakers, so I feel like I am missing out on an opportunity. I would also like him to eventually attend bilingual French-English school, starting in “college” (middle school). I am frankly very confused as to what to do!

    Lastly, in terms of logistics, when you do your two-week period in Spanish, for example, do you ban English-language books, songs, etc., too, in order to make the distinction between languages clearer? What do you do if you happen to have English-speaking friends over during the Spanish two weeks? What do you do if your children ask you to read a book in English, if it’s during the Spanish two weeks?

    Thanks so much for any advice you can give!
    All best,

  11. Wioletta says:

    Hello Maria!
    I am a Polish lady in her thirties who has lived in England for 12 years now. My daughter is 3 months old. I speak Polish and English fluently and hold a teaching degree in German. I used to speak German fluently a decade ago. My partner is Scottish/ English. He speaks English and Scottish to our daughter. I speak Polish to her. I tried speaking German but it felt quite unnatural at times. I am wondering whether to speak German to her at all. Is it too much for her little brain? I don’t have any German friends at the moment but I enjoy listening to German radio as well as reading in German. I lack confidence to speak it but I know I could get back into it by checking vocabulary as I speak to her and it would make me happy. I just wouldn’t want to overwhelm her with languages so that she feels under pressure to use them especially when she is older. My partner hardly speaks Polish or German. Would it be selfish of me to introduce German to her?
    Thank you for your time.
    All the best

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