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Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Falling off the OPOL Wagon

falling off the OPOL wagon/ istockphoto © Sherwin McGehee

I didn’t realize I had fallen off the one parent one language (OPOL) wagon until I found myself face down on the ground with a chipped tooth and a mouthful of dirt.

For me it was a slippery slope. I am not aware if strict OPOL means that parents speak their native language to each other as well as their children. This would require that my Mexican husband speak fluent French and that I speak fluent Spanish. Given our non-Francophone location and Javier’s long working hours, his learning substantial French at this point is a distant dream. I, on the other hand, have few excuses for my lack of Spanish but the reality remains: yo no hablo Español muy bien. So even if I only spoke French to my daughter, she is fully aware that I both understand and speak English and not just outside our household but also to communicate with her dear Papa. Here is my hand dangling off the wagon.

Simply choosing to speak a specific language to your child may initially seem simple enough, especially if it is your primary language, but you quickly find that your choice can impact a whole host of issues from inclusiveness to safety and effectiveness. Here are the ones that led to my demise:

1. Group play dates
Before having my first daughter, I’d envisioned lots of play dates with other French-speaking children, but these never panned out. Either I couldn’t find French children or the parents were both French and encouraged their child to speak English or they had fallen off the French wagon almost completely once their child started talking. Though I do speak to her individually in French, sometimes the need arises to address the group, which means I am technically speaking to her in English even if I do repeat it in French for her benefit just after. My arm creeps out over the side of the wagon.

2. Extracurricular activities
We currently live in Singapore, the land of unguarded swimming pools, so swimming classes were a top priority for us. Our daughter, like many children, was extremely nervous of the water. This was a stressful time with both her teacher and I trying to cajole, console and “push” her simultaneously. While trying to encourage and maintain a safe environment, I felt like I was adding confusion and an extra layer of cacophony to an already noisy and difficult experience. Speaking English felt like a more “unified” approach and let the teacher hear that I was reinforcing her message. Here goes the first leg over the side of the wagon.

3. Discipline at home
Moving to Singapore was a blessing in so many ways and the fact that the country is set up to accept multilingualism as the norm is definitely one of them. Knowing that Papa ends up working long hours, we had always thought that someday we would have an au-pair or help at home once we had a second child and it became more cost effective. We imagined we would choose someone Latin who would speak Spanish and help support the minority language. Instead, we have the most wonderful helper from the Philippines who speaks very good English. This has resulted in Pacifique’s English improving in leaps and bounds but also means she has developed an extremely strong preference for English. Here is where my other leg goes over the wagon’s side; I am now barely hanging on, white knuckled with sweat trickling down to my fingertips.

Because toddlers can be quite a handful, it’s important that caregivers are on the same page especially with impending tantrums and other naughty behaviors. In order to do this, I would say something to Pacifique in French and then say it again in English for Cherry or Javier’s benefit. With her speaking more and more English, this soon mutated into me saying it in English and then translating it into French. Somehow, I realized I wasn’t even always translating it into French anymore. I knew I had hit rock bottom when my sentences turned into a language mish-mash with no real structure.

To make matters worse, as more English crept into my exchanges, the same happened to my husband as we struggled to stay on the same page. My spoken Spanish may leave much to be desired but my comprehension is quite good, yet I couldn’t tell him not to speak English with her as I was doing so myself. We were heading downhill at breakneck speed and hadn’t even noticed.

The hard thud on the ground was when I suddenly realized that when completely alone with my daughter, English started creeping into our conversations and she no longer ever uttered a word in French to me.

How did I get here? How do any of us get here? If you had told me I would end up so far down this path, I would never have believed it. Cue the self-berating: Of course I ended up here. I have commitment issues. I have finishing issues. My French is inadequate. How did I ever expect to pull this off? I am sure a late emerging case of post-partum depression from my second child who also struggled to sleep through the night probably didn’t help. When I am being kind to myself, I figure that all the complexities of our linguistic situation coupled with feeling so awful and vulnerable would of course make this prone to happening to anyone. When I am not being kind, I think that I am a poor excuse of a mother, who now has the luxury of full-time live-in help and still can’t pull it together. Yes, I am learning to focus on the former not the latter.

Whatever takes you down this road, kids are resilient. Kids can adjust to incredible amounts of change. Don’t let the purists scare you away. Your kid won’t be lost to inevitable language confusion just because you fall off the OPOL wagon. It may be tougher to climb back on when you are tired, bruised and covered in dirt, but you will get there and make it to your destination.

Stay tuned for Part II to learn how I got back on the wagon.

© 2011 – 2013, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas. All rights reserved.

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Born in New York back when subway graffiti was rife, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas mostly spends her time pondering, parenting, and writing. Franco-American, she spent her summers in the Loire indulging in heart-arresting foods. An eclectic background ranging from Japanese art and postal history to environmental social innovations and rigging dinghies has taken her to England, Turkey, Singapore and now Thailand, where she resides with her Mexican husband and their two daughters. They are attempting to raise trilingual kids in Spanish, French and English with some Thai thrown in. She can also be found blogging at

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsAlla   |  Friday, 27 July 2012 at 10:21 am

    Great article. However, now that you are back on the OPOL wagon, how do you plan to deal with the situations you described in your previous article (group play dates, extracurricular activities, etc.)?

  2. CommentsCordelia Newlin de Rojas   |  Sunday, 29 July 2012 at 7:27 pm

    Hi Alla,
    Thank you for your kind words. Yours is a great follow up question and very useful for me to honestly assess where I am at. I still believe that being an OPOL purist is extremely effective for anchoring the languages and I’ve seen amazing parents really just manage to ignore everyone else around and stick to their ‘language’ irrespective of the situation. I have not been so successful but I have managed to reign in the amount of English I use.
    1. With regards to disciplining, I realized that if there was anything critical I wanted my husband or helper to know, I would just take them aside following a situation and explain it. I also rely on the fact that they can see the outcomes of what I am saying to Pacifique e.g. if she gets counted, sent to her room, etc and deduct what is going on.
    2. My swimming classes were still a bit mixed up til they ended. Now my eldest is old enough that I can explain to her why mommy is speaking English in this situation. With hindsight, I probably would have taken the teacher aside and checked in with her to discuss or at least explain that I was reinforcing everything in French. Again, I think she would have probably deducted that.
    3. With the playdates, if the children are english speakers, then I will try to say everything twice. Once in French to my daughter and in English to the others. That said, we were fortunate enough to move to a country where the French Lycee is very affordable (relative to other private schools) and let us pay monthly so I’ve been able to have more playdates now where even if the kids annoyingly speak together in English, I know they all understand French so I just use that with them.

    The reality is that I still ‘fall off’ the wagon all the time but I am much more aware of it and able to get back on track faster. I also think as the kids grow up and depending on their use of the language, friends and how things change generally, I’ll probably be constantly adapting to situations as they arise. Just to give you an example, Spanish is suffering so much in our household, I am exploring getting my up to speed and using it with my Husband and with the kids when the four of us are together to help reinforce it. I guess if I pull that off, I’ll be taking a half OPOL-half minority language approach!

  3. CommentsInCultureParent | Getting Back on the OPOL Wagon   |  Saturday, 23 February 2013 at 1:52 am

    […] I wrote about in Part I of this article, “Falling off the OPOL Wagon,” I didn’t realize I had fallen off the one parent one language (OPOL) wagon until I found […]

  4. CommentsAnke   |  Monday, 06 May 2013 at 10:42 am

    Thank you so much for your articles. I am falling of the wagon too and just try to climb back on over and over again and it’s reassuring to hear that it also happens to other parents. I try to speak German with our kids but my husband only understands very little of it and all of our environment is in English so I have to force myself and concentrate to stay in German with the kids and still slip into English often. I have to speak in English to him and also do when I want to make sure he understands what I am saying to the kids, but try to repeat it in German then). It seems to be becoming harder the longer I have been away from Germany and lived here in the U.S. I also find it hard to translate some things into German from our daily lives here that are hard to translate/ often really exist in this format. But like you concluded, the only solution seems to be to try to climb back on and not get discouraged and never give up. Good luck to all of us! :-)

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