OPOL: Why it doesn’t always work

You’re at a party and there’s that lovely mama with whom you’re getting on with quite well when you meet at the school gates. She’s there with her daughter. You’re chatting away with her and all of a sudden she decides to say something on the topic to her daughter.. but she does so in Russian. You look bemused for a moment as you don’t know exactly what was said. The little girl lets out a little giggle and gives you a quick glance before running off to catch up with her friends. The Mum speaks English and so does the girl. But they decided to codify their little language exchange. The Mum didn’t mean to be rude but she’s keeping to her strict OPOL policy.

Sometimes you just need to be able to talk to monolingual friends without feeling the need to switch when talking to your child. It’s not the switching that is the problem but it’s more like the fact that you don’t want to look rude in front of other people by talking in a language they don’t understand. It’s a bit like whispering. When my child speaks the geographical majority language and so do I, I don’t want to have to switch languages just to keep to my OPOL characteristics. I used to do it, but now I don’t and it certainly hasn’t made a difference to our now slightly looser OPOL method.

Many parents complain that they’re afraid of their children losing the ability to speak the target language if they also start speaking to them in the majority language. The trick here is to keep to basic guidelines such as; when alone with the children and when at home, the target language is to be prevalent. Keep rules elastic, nobody learns when they feel pressurized.

I speak both languages fluently. I picked up Italian almost intuitively and studied the grammar by myself. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that an additional language should be learned completely naturally without turning to a mother tongue language for translations or help, that it should be just ‘picked up’ and learned. After years of teaching English as a second language to children where school methods only allow you to speak in the mother tongue, I’m finding there can be lots of flaws in this methodology. Children learn a lot quicker if you tell them first in their language and then you teach them what it is in English, this way they also have a quick memory short cut perfect for translations. When I’m interpreting I sometimes have difficulty doing a quick translation because of this way I learned the language. Not because I don’t know the translation but because it takes me a while to think of a good way to express it in the other language having learned both languages intuitively without hardly ever translating them. It is a lot more resourceful for children to learn being able to also use their first language for a direct translation. It will stand them in good stead for future encounters. I’ve found that this is also what happens when we use a strict OPOL method, when one person is only allowed to speak the one language. We don’t allow intrusion from other languages so we don’t allow them to ‘cooperate’ with each other in our minds therefore losing many possibilities to aid communication and create shortcuts; it can actually be quite limiting.


Crawling out of the tunnel

I made the mistake of doing extreme OPOL with my first son and I notice that sometimes he can’t make a direct comparison in the other language because I banned the other language completely. Now with my second son I’m speaking in English to him but I also express the same thing in Italian too, so he gets the hang of the two languages and hopefully can translate quicker. He knows that he’ll have to converse with me in English but there won’t be any strict OPOL rules about there not being allowed other languages.

OPOL is listed as one of the most effective ways of raising bilingual children. I’m certain though, that as long as there is language exposure and consistency that just doing what works for the family is the best way to raise bilingual children.

Boost bilingualism in the home

Most people see creating a bilingual environment at home as a daunting chore. It needn’t be so and can actually become natural and effortless if you bare in mind a few things. For children to feel comfortable using a minority language they need the right amount of exposure on a daily basis and in ways that they mustn’t feel pressurized.

  • Both languages must be spoken at home.

It will never be possible to speak both languages in equal parts but some exposure to the minority language must take part each day. You can get used to speaking the minority language at home if it’s done on a daily basis and children thrive on routine. Maybe bedtime can be done in the language. Bedtime books can be read and routines can be done too.

  • Media     

It’s always a good idea to get children used to watching cartoons and films in the minority language. It’s something you know will definitely get their interest and for once you don’t have to be the one doing the work.

Mobile apps are great fun for learning languages too. They can be educational and teach so much. You can always limit screen time if you’re worried about them watching too much TV.IMG_0515.JPG

  • Social connections

Make sure you reach out to other parents and children of the same nationality in your area. There are lots of Facebook groups nowadays and most parents are connected via Whatsapp groups. Organie playgroups, weekly meetings or even get togethers once in a while at home or at a park where children can interact and encourage them to speak to each other in the desired language. Your child gets to play with other children reinforcing relationships and strengthens their minority language skills.

  • Books, books and more books!

Books really are little worlds between the pages. Books with interesting pictures will help children associate words and situations as you read in the desired language. Books are an important tool in helping learn a new language and they also help children relax, encourage one on one time and are a healthy option and break from iPads and the like.

  • Strengthen family ties

If it is possible, a good way of getting children comfortable with speaking a different language is to let them spend time with Grandparents or other relatives who speak the language. This way they enjoy spending time together and help improve language skills.



Observations on raising bilingual children

I have a 5 year old and a 1 year old and both are being brought up bilingual. They speak in English to me and in Italian to their father. I have to admit it has been quite hard work as we have had our trials and tribulations of bringing our first son up with two languages. I was constantly analysing his speech development because I was certain he was very behind all his peers and he had a clear preference for English even though we lived in Italy and he was more exposed to Italian. I considered giving up speaking English but only very briefly as I know the importance of the language and whatever happened this was also his direct cultural inheritance from me. I can only say it got better and now we have a completely bilingual 5 year old, I’m so glad that I persevered and got through the pain barrier!

Some of my son’s monolingual friends were very quick talkers so for a brief period I wondered if raising him in two different languages had an affect on his linguistic development, but looking at a wider selection of children, I realised he was just a more average rather than precocious talker. I’m sure bilingualism did take its toll on his speed of picking up the languages and I’ve noticed that in monolingual children their language boom comes at about age 2 – 2.5 and in bi/multilingual children this comes much later but I’d say that from about age 5 onwards their language development reaches the same level. Other factors have to be excluded when there is a potential speech delay as bilingual children are often just fobbed off as having speech difficulties because of their bilingualism when in actual fact they have a speech problem regardless of the amount of languages they speak.

The first time I saw language switching I was amazed. I was tutoring the children of wealthy entrepreneurs in the centre of Rome. I was impressed and amazed at the natural fluency in which they had acquired both the languages. Although they were 100% Italian, their outlook on the world was completely international, they listened to me and had a sort of secret empathy towards me that their Italian peers that I had begun to teach just didn’t possess. The monolingual children just looked at me blankly when I spoke, or maybe giggled the first times out of embarrassment. This sparked my reflections on how children were when given the gift of acquiring two languages and how they didn’t just benefit linguistically, but universally, as people as if it opened their minds and widened their horizons. It was like somewhere inside their minds they had a whole new world that enriched the children that they were and just glinted hope for the people that they would become. It was spectacular as one moment they seemed two Italian children playing and speaking to each other in Italian and then one would say a sentence in English and they would both switch languages and start playing in English as if nothing had happened, they were the same two children but with two different ‘modes’.

My two children already have a very global outlook. From birth the boys have existed in multilingual and multicultural environments and know about other countries and cultures. I’ve noticed that they become less judgemental as they naturally emerge in different cultures, they get the chance to see the reasons why certain people do certain things. They observe, they learn and they put that knowledge under their belts. It’s like having the best of both worlds.

Raising completely bilingual children gives them a leap start for learning a third and fourth language and from experience it becomes so much easier for them. I noticed this when my son recently took an unexpected interest in French. I set a cartoon to original language on Sky, thinking it would be English but it was actually French. I was quite amazed when my son actually sat there listening to the cartoon and started making some very French sounds. What I was experiencing was an interest in another language. He even asked me if I knew how to speak French and if I could teach him some! I now know he has a good propensity to learn other languages and clearly more interest in different languages than monolingual peers.

He’s 5 years old and has grown up submersed in these two very different languages from the word GO and although I know he has experienced the downsides of having to deal with two languages (his peers being slightly one up on him in the majority language) the situation has only enriched him, morally, linguistically and culturally.IMG_0306

I know now that for my 1 year old it’s ok to raise him bilingually and that he will only benefit from the situation.