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affect their children’s ability to properly learn the separate languages, OPOL seems to fade into the mishmash of outdated multilingual strategies.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?