When we first had kids, I had understood there were two methods to make them bilingual: OPOL (one parent one language) or mL@H (minority language at home). In the first nine months of my daughter’s life, we were OPOL and then some. My husband spoke Arabic to our daughter, I spoke English and we spoke French together. The language of the country was German but the languages of our community of frequent people in our lives were Spanish, German, French and Arabic. Then we moved back to the U.S. and became a more traditional OPOL family, me sticking with English and my husband Arabic and our family language switched from French to English. We became so much more boring linguistically.
When I started reading more from the experts about bilingualism, I discovered that there was a third method: whatever worked for the family provided there was consistency in the method. I suppose that was our initial approach before it became strictly OPOL.
But the older our daughters became (they are now four and six), I discovered something else. OPOL is overly simplistic and doesn’t tell the full story. It was only when they got a bit older that I realized that OPOL failed us completely, which was unexpected and disappointing. We always imagined bilingual kids who could readily converse with their family in Morocco. Instead they can understand everything but speak little and with hesitation. This article gives a fantastic overview of reasons OPOL doesn’t go as planned in many families. (Spoiler alert: we’re the first case.)
In correspondence with the very kind and helpful Francois Grosjean, who has given me valuable insight on what has gone awry in my family, he confirmed my suspicions: the kids needed additional language input beyond their dad.
“You chose a strategy (OPOL) which does not give good results if the minority language (in your case, Moroccan Arabic) is not reinforced by other means (playgroups, parents, babysitters, etc.) which was not the case at first….a much better strategy is one language in the home, another outside the home.” (If you, like me, craved more information on this, then check out family strategies in Chapter 17 of Grosjean’s book “Bilingual Life and Reality” as well as his section on “homemade” strategies (pp. 211-213). You can also check out his awesome blog!)
Francois also suggested that the amount of language input my children received in Arabic was not enough. Getting technical, their daily breakdown, which has changed from year to year with varying job circumstances, looked like this when they were a little younger:
Morning: Arabic one hour (dad exclusively)
Day: English at school
Late Afternoon: Arabic exclusively for two hours but at varying times this was also English
Evening two hours: Mom in English, Dad in Arabic, English together
In total, their daily language Arabic input was under 25%. It is currently even less than that with Arabic exclusively for 30 minutes in the morning and we have two hours in the evening when we are all home together and speak English together mixed with Arabic when their dad is talking.
While bilingualism isn’t a strict science, if you are spending approximately above 40% (this is my rough estimate based on how much time kids in immersion schools spend in the target language out of their total waking hours) of your child’s waking hours in your target language, then your child will be getting more language input and OPOL will have better results. But to ensure full success in whatever method you choose, including mL@H, you will need the support of friends in the community in the target language as well—kids need a use for the language, and even better if that use extends beyond the family.
One of the most powerful ways to reinforce the minority language is with playmates! Kids are always more encouraged to communicate when they have a need—friends who speak that language are a great motivation. I smiled as I watched my children grasping for every single Spanish word they knew to communicate with a group of Spanish-speaking kids at a wedding in Mexico (my kids have been learning Spanish for about eight months now). My children had a need for the language—they wanted to play! Books, movies, games and other media can be additional supports for language learning, but those are third tier solutions, helpful but less optimal than playmates and community members.
While I don’t mean to cause alarm or be overly dramatic (although my husband will attest I am great at the latter), I want to make sure families have realistic goals of what OPOL actually entails. There is more to OPOL than the face value of the method. So whether you take the plunge or are already on the bilingual journey, it’s important to understand the full picture of bilingualism and remember, you can’t do it alone. Support is crucial for success in the minority language.