Bilingual Parenting: OPOL or Mixed Language—Does it Matter?

Bilingual parenting is more common than we think. It’s the norm in many countries where citizens speak several languages or dialects that are transmitted to their children. Mixed marriages, with parents who come from different countries and speak different languages, create families where two languages coexist in daily life. Families moving to live in another country, either as expatriates or immigrants, also bring an extra language into the home. Some children attend schools in a second or third language for educational, cultural or religious reasons. These families all share a need to balance the two languages.


Parents speaking a different language


Having parents who speak different languages is often seen as a gift for young children, who will naturally pick up both languages. In reality, a young child absolutely needs to learn both languages simply to communicate with their parents. One parent may not understand the other parent’s language, making translation common at home, often with one parent who is actively bilingual while the other remains monolingual.


From a young age, children switch languages rapidly. Miyuko, a Japanese translator and mother of two daughters, who lives in London with her British husband comments, “It was difficult in the beginning with our first baby. Although I’m bilingual and live in England it felt strange speaking English, so I only spoke Japanese, but then my husband didn’t understand me!” Miyuko persisted and even encouraged her husband to learn some Japanese at the same time. She noted that the challenge is to give children enough equal exposure to each language, or the children are tempted to only use one language, especially in a monolingual country. Parents surmount this problem by encouraging their children to have links with family and friends or engage in activities where they are able to practice the ‘minority,’ or less used, language. Living far away from her immediate family and friends, Miyuko decided to set up a playgroup with Japanese-speaking mothers to give her a chance to celebrate cultural festivals from her country.


Living in a country where a different language is spoken


Children brought up in a country where the exterior language of the country and school is different from the home language can experience a double life. They often have a dual identity of one language and culture closely tied to a place or community and another that they reserve for family life. This facilitates bilingualism, although over time children can feel more comfortable with the country language than their home one.


This phenomenon is exemplified in Hispanic families in America where over two generations, the daily word count in Spanish drops rapidly as children either use ‘Spanglish’ or switch to English altogether. Raul, a Mexican-American lawyer living in Chicago, notes that Spanish usage is decreasing, even though first or second-generation parents prefer children to speak Spanish at home. Chicago has a high Mexican-origin population, yet 96% of Chicanos there prefer to speak English. Raul reports that he learnt just enough to pass the subject at school while his older brother only knows Spanish swearwords and his younger brother doesn’t speak any Spanish. Even though their mother pushed them to watch bilingual news stations, the three teenage boys were not motivated to actually speak, read or write Spanish. Raul says, “I am making an effort to learn my grandparent’s language and am taking courses and looking for ways to practice Spanish in my community. I’d like to help kids like me become fluent in Spanish before it’s too late.”


Children in a school system where they use another language


Like children brought up in a country with a different language, children enrolled in schools link the language they learn to a place or a building. International schools, established around the world for expatriate children and for parents who want their children to acquire a second language, can operate in many languages. Depending on the number of years spent at the school, a child can become more fluent in the school language, typically through friends.


However, there can be some drawbacks too, as children and parents can find homework and following a syllabus challenging in a second language, especially if they are not fluent in that language. Elizabeth was brought up in India and received her degree in science at an English-language University. When the family moved to Singapore for her husband’s job, Elizabeth chose to put her six-year-old son in an English-only international school. “He has adapted very well and speaks English all day with his friends and teachers.” She added, “He tends to speak more and more English at home now, even with us, and I worry about helping him to write essays in my second language. But we think it will help him in the long run, because he can go to many countries to study and he will have more opportunities than if he only spoke Hindi.”


Living in a bilingual country


Many children are brought up in countries where two or more languages or dialects are used regularly such as in India, China, parts of Southeast Asia, Africa and border countries in Europe. A child is expected to learn all of the dialects or languages used by the community from an early age and know when and with whom to use them. In these families, children switch and mix languages rapidly to suit the situation: one language for religious study, a dialect for shopping in the market, another language for school and a fourth language used with an aunt. This scenario often helps children become multilingual. The downside can be that some children acquire only a limited amount of each language, or are unable to fully communicate in one language.


Mixed speech versus pure OPOL


One of the most frequently asked questions from parents bringing up their children bilingually is whether they should speak both languages or separate them. Some bilingual families mix both languages on a regular basis, sometimes in the same sentence. Other families choose to link one language to a parent, a strategy known as the one parent one language (OPOL) approach, to expose the child to a ‘pure’ example of the language. Families who are bilingual, live in a second-language country or whose children attend school in a second language might encourage their children to only use the first language or the minority language at home. There are no set rules, and each strategy is effective in a particular context. Each family has its own unique mix of home, country, community and school language.

In general, children appear to prefer to mix both languages, especially once they are able to use both. Families I interviewed typically started off using the OPOL approach with young children and then adopted a more mixed strategy as the children grew and became fully bilingual.


Siblings and their effect on family language use


It’s not just the parents who control language use at home. I asked over a hundred international families with two or more children aged three or more about their children’s language use. Parents noted that after a certain time, the children decided which languages they felt more comfortable using. Independent of parents’ language preferences, siblings often choose a private, ‘preferred’ language, which they chat in away from parents. This can be a parental language, a school or country language, or a mix of two or three languages. Siblings can have as much or more influence than parents on younger children’s language choices through their shared storytelling, games, and cultural experiences. Older siblings also bring friends back to the family home, changing the delicate balance of language use within the home. Siblings can also keep a minority language active and have a role in maintaining languages in the long term.


  1. We are mixed family – Eurasian and living in both worlds. Should be some kind of priority which language to choose first “in terms of thinking language”?


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