Why we stick to OPOL

Why we stick to OPOL | Trilingual Mama
Stick to your task ’til it sticks to you;
Beginners are many, but enders are few.
Honor, power, place and praise
Will always come to the one who stays.
Stick to your task ’til it sticks to you;
Bend at it, sweat at it, smile at it, too;
For out of the bend and the sweat and the smile
Will come life’s victories after a while.

—Author Unknown

OPOL seems to have gotten quite the controversial reputation in recent times. There are advocates for and advocates against and I’ve seen more than one heated debate one some of the “raising multilingual children” groups on Facebook. Some would argue that it is the best way to raise multilingual children because the parents help create a clear distinction between languages so that children do not confuse languages. Others argue that it is too rigid of a system and too difficult to follow. And with all of the recent research showing that parents who mix languages don’t adversely affect their children’s ability to properly learn the separate languages, OPOL seems to fade into the mishmash of outdated multilingual strategies. So, to OPOL or not to OPOL? That is the question! To read a more in-depth exploration of the subject click here: One parent, one language: OPOL is dead, Long live OPOL! But this is why we have decided to religiously stick to OPOL!

We wanted to make a clear distinction between languages

When my French husband and I got engaged, he made it clear that our children would learn French. I had never thought about raising bilingual children, but since we were living in the United States and would learn English as their community language, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to teach them Spanish as well. OPOL just seemed to make sense. He would speak French to our children, I would speak Spanish and they would learn English from the community. I had to get used to speaking to my children in Spanish but once I did, it was smooth sailing. And this is the way we raised our two oldest children until….

When we moved from the United States to France, we knew we would need a new system

In the United States, OPOL plus the community language was the simplest way to ensure that our children would grow up trilingual. When we moved to France, we quickly realized that English was no longer part of the language configuration. French was now their community language and if I continued to speak to them exclusively in Spanish, English would be lost. Sam was not comfortable speaking to our children in Spanish or English and so I knew the only way was for me to transmit both of my mother languages to our children. And I was okay with that, but how? We tried a “light switch” system, switching languages every other day. It was a lot of mental gymnastics and we finally ended up using a two week OPOL system that we’ve been using for the past 10 years. Today our four children are trilingual, each to varying degrees.

Creating balanced exposure between our two heritage languages

This is probably the number one reason we stick to OPOL because to be perfectly honest, it’s not always easy. As the children grow and our family becomes more and more adapted to our life in France (which is a good thing), it becomes an increasing challenge to not switch permanently to French. Idealistically we strive to spend exactly two weeks in English and two weeks in Spanish. But in real life, it’s not quite that simple. If we are with other anglophones during our Spanish two weeks or vice versa, we try to adapt to the situation by adopting the common language. This means extra switching between languages. And extra switching between languages leaves a lot more room for mixing up the languages. Also, when we are with other French speakers whether in our home or outside of the home, I find myself switching to French with my own children for practicality purposes and also out of respect for those third persons, especially if I feel it’s necessary for them to understand what I am saying. And so in all reality, achieving balanced exposure is not all that easy. We could just do away with OPOL, but the difficulty of the situation actually makes me want to stick to it even more.

The reality of life means that we sometimes mix languages or spend more time in one language or the other. I therefore feel even more strongly that we need to allot specific amounts of time to our two community languages. This means that we have resorted to making our two-week periods a great deal more flexible. My children are in fact the ones who mainly initiate this adaptation of our language system. I love this because it shows how invested they are in our family language goals! When they feel they need extra practice in Spanish (our weakest language), my two oldest children (Alex 14 and Elena 12) simply ask if we can extend our Spanish period an extra week or two. So rather than the time period defining balanced exposure to our heritage languages, my children and I go more by our intuition, and depending on the circumstances, we extend our two-week language periods as needed, sometimes staying in one language for more than a month.

Every Friday night I simply ask my children what they feel like doing, whether they’d like to continue in the same language or switch. There is usually a general consensus. Sometimes they feel they need extra practice in Spanish and other times they’ve simply tired of making efforts to speak in Spanish and feel like they need a break and so we switch to English. Allowing ourselves to create opportunities for balanced exposure depending on our feeling and the circumstances, allows us a great deal more flexibility to switch back and forth between languages throughout our days as needed. We try to follow the ebb and flow of our days while making efforts to stay in the target language as much as possible.

Is it really OPOL?

I admit it is a rather loose interpretation of OPOL, but the motivation that remains clear in my mind is the absolute necessity for me to have an organized system for transmitting two heritage languages to my children while living in a country where they are immersed in a community language that is a third language for them. OPOL is one parent, one language. And since I am one parent with two languages, I must divide myself in two. I choose to do that by periods of time.  Though our intial goal was to use two week periods, we have made an additional adaptation that allows us to be flexible with our language choice, adapt to our environment as needed and even mix languages at times.

This is why no matter the challenges, we stick to OPOL until it sticks to us. Like they say, the proof is in the pudding. And if raising a multilingual family is the task at hand, I’m pretty sure it has stuck to us because my children no longer consider it just a task. It has become a way of life which largely defines an integral facet of our family culture. To see how invested my children are in our family language goals is the proof in the pudding that our multilingual tasks have indeed stuck to our children. And that for me, is half the struggle.

Do you use OPOL? If so, how have you adapted it to fit your family’s specific needs?

11 Responses

  1. freebutfun says:

    Cool, first time I read how someasy other bilingual mum does it when her husband uses a third language! Great to here you find it works even with your older children.

    We swap every second week, it falls naturally as my husband is away every second week and understands one language well but not the other. We are also flexible when it comes to the language of our company. We’ll see how the situation will change with different needs later!

    • Maria says:

      Some say this type of “light switch” method is impossible to implement and have found some disbelief from people who don’t believe we really make it work in our family. So it is so amazing to know it works for you too. Thanks for commenting and best of luck to you!

  2. Aleksandra says:

    We use OPOL in our home. My husband is monolingual (English) while I speak English and Polish. Since we live in the United States with no Polish family close by, and with my husband not knowing Polish, how else would my child learn Polish? It only makes sense for me to speak to him in the language that we want him to learn. OPOL is really our only option.

    I commend and admire you for sticking to your guns and doing double the work. My son is only 2 and the bilingual journey has been more difficult than I even thought it would be. And I never thought it would be so discouraging when you hear your child repeat words in the community language and not in your minority language, even though you are excited that he is speaking words.

    It sounds like OPOL really is the only option for you guys too, since your husband will only speak French. So I say work with what you’ve got, especially since it seems like it has been working well for your family. Every family is different, and while it is good to see what others are doing to get ideas and tips, in the end it all has to be shaped to fit your family’s needs. Good luck!

    • Maria says:

      I think, like you, I found the first two years to be particularly challenging and found myself wanting to give up. But we stuck with it, certain things became easier and the really rewarding moments inevitably came. Now I’m raising trilingual teens, tween and toddler and there are more challenges! But it has become such a way of life for us, one that we really enjoy, so there is no turning back for us now! Best of luck to you as well! And thanks for stopping by the blog.

  3. Anna says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I am also the only parent carrying my two mother languages (English and Cantonese) in our family. It’s been tough. We have some sort of “light switch” system too. So I speak Cantonese to my kids on the two days that I don’t work and during bath time when daddy is not around (as my husband is uncomfortable being the only one who doesn’t understand Cantonese). It’s not perfect but it works for our family. It’s always good to hear how other parents in a similar situation does it, and that it’s working. So thank you. :)

    • Maria says:

      What works for the family is the most important thing! And I think your plan is quite clever! We should start a club for parents who want to transmit two heritage languages! I think you’re doing an awesome job! Keep it up!

  4. Marta says:

    Hi Maria, what a great effort on your side and the kids! I’ve just started following you blog. Have you sterted that club? Best

  5. Francesco says:

    Dear Maria,
    Congratulations on your efforts and great results as a multilingual mom! I hope you can help me with my doubts.
    My wife and I are Italian, we live in Italy and we have a daughter.
    Besides my mother tongue (Italian) I can speak English and French pretty fluently (I’ve always had a passion for foreign languages since I was a kid), so right before our daughter’s birth (4 years ago) my wife and I agreed that I would speak French only at home (but my wife always talks to me in Italian because she only knows some basic French from school and no English at all).
    So far so good, we’re very satisfied with the results: my daughter is bilingual as she always addresses me in good French whereas she uses Italian in any other situation. I sometimes have the feeling that her French vocabulary is much richer than her Italian one, which of course makes me feel very proud!
    Now let’s come to my doubt.
    My wife and I have recently
    started talking about having a second child and I would like to use English only to communicate with him/her while sticking to French for the rest of the family.
    My idea is that switching language according to the child will make both children learn their third language (respectively English for the first born and French for the second born).
    It goes without saying that this choice of breaking the OPOL rule is actually a very ambitious plan to put into practice: what worries me most is that using French to address one child and English to address the other in the end will promote Italian in the communication between siblings which I would like to avoid.
    So on the one hand the idea of introducing English as a third language at home is very tempting, on the other sticking to OPOL (i.e. always communicating with my children and my wife in French only) appears to be the most reasonable and “natural” path for the kids.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on such a crazy idea issued from as much a foreign languages fanatic as I am.


    • Maria says:

      Hello Francesco, I’ve given your questions some thought and although yes, your plans are ambitious, I believe that adapting OPOL (or any other language plan) is something that is feasible and even recommendable…. And I believe that it goes without saying, but if you can introduce an additional family language, there are so many benefits to the individual family members and to the family as a whole. However, here are just a few things to take into consideration… 1.) Speaking a different language with each child could also create an affective barrier in your family dynamics. Also, the more family languages, the more complex communication becomes when you are all together. At the dinner table, for example, or when you need to have a family discussion with all members actively participating. 2.) Children and siblings in your particular situation, are very good at deciding what language they will speak with each other. In my personal opinion, it’s important to let them “own” their own relationship and communication. Consequently, I have always left it up to my children to decide what language to use to play with and communicate with each other. Children will almost always adopt the community language. Chances are that no matter what language plan you choose, if you are living in Italy, your children will decide to speak to each other in Italian. Now, don’t let these things discourage you, but it’s better to be aware of these eventualities so that you can choose the very best configuration for your family. I’m guessing you’ve read my articles about my own 2-week OPOL adaptation that I use to transmit two mother languages (English and Spanish) to my children. We live in France and they speak French to each other and yes, our family dinners are sometimes chaotic with 3 languages being spoken sometimes in the same sentence! But we love it. The family language plan needs to fit the family! Now, another thing to keep in mind is that a family language plan needs to evolve and grow with the family. What works for a certain period of time may need to be adapted according to the changing circumstances and needs of each family member. Don’t be afraid to change, which is exactly what you are contemplating now, so I think you have the right frame of mind. Always include all the family members as much as possible in making decisions about how to adapt the family language plan. Also, you can try something out, decide it’s not at all what you want or that it doesn’t feel right and change things again. I hope all of this will help you in finding what is right for your multilingual family. Sincerely, Maria

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