One Person One Language (OPOL)

An illustration of a bilingual family

This post is based largely on an article by Francois Grosjean:

One popular way to raise bilingual children is for each parent to speak only their native language with their children. For example the father will speak English and the mother will speak Spanish, and the children will acquire both languages. At first the children might mix the languages, but they will soon come to associate one language with each parent. There is also a belief that if the parents mix languages, e.g. the Spanish-speaking parent sometimes speaks English, and the English-speaking parent sometimes speaks Spanish, the children will get confused.

Problems with the OPOL approach
There are problems with the OPOL approach – children is likely get more exposure to one language then to the other, and one language is likely to become dominant. The children may come to prefer that language, especially if both parents speak it, and the children may be able to understand but not speak the non-dominant language. This is quite often the case with minority languages like Welsh and Irish.

It can also be difficult to stick to OPOL when other people are around who only speak one of the languages. For example, if a Spanish/English family is with Spanish-speaking friends, does the parent who only speaks English with the children stick to English, even though the friends might not understand, or do they switch to Spanish? Parents can find such situations stressful and might adapt their approach to context and be more flexible rather than sticking rigidly to OPOL.

Does the OPOL approach actually work?
There are have been a number of the OPOL approach, including a notable one of 2,000 families by Annick De Houwer, which found that children in a quarter of the families did not become bilingual, and that in families where parents mixed languages, as many children became bilingual as in OPOL families.

What is the OPOL approach based on?
Given the popularity of the OPOL approach, you might think that it’s based on sound foundations of research and testing. This is not the case. It has probably been around for a long time, but the first reference to it in modern linguistic literature is in a book from 1913 by Jules Ronjat, a French linguist with a German wife. In 1908, when his son was born, Ronjat asked his colleague, Maurice Grammont, for advice on raising his son bilingually. In a letter Grammont advised Ronjat to speak only French to his son, and for his wife to speak only German. Since then many other people have discussed the OPOL approach, and often cite a book by Grammont, Observations sur le langage des enfants (Observations on Children’s Language) which was supposedly published in 1902, however does not in fact exist, according to François Grosjean. So the OPOL approach is based on the opinion of Maurice Grammont, who published nothing on language acquisition, as expressed in a letter to his colleague Jules Ronjat.

Have you tried or are you trying the OPOL approach?
Did it work / is it working for you?
What problems have you had with it?

Life as a Bilingual: The reality of living with two (or more) languages (by Francois Grosjean, and Aneta Pavlenko)

Links to websites with information and advice about raising children bilingually

Articles about bilingualism

5 thoughts on “One Person One Language (OPOL)

  1. My wife is a Spanish speaker; I am an English speaker. When out daughter was little my wife spoke to her only in Spanish, and I spoke to her only in English. When she was three we came to live in France and, of course, she heard only French at school and from her friends. She has been fully trilingual since the age of four, and has never shown any sign of being confused. Occasionally in speaking English she would drop a French word into a sentence when she didn’t know the English word, but you could always hear the slight pauses before and after the French word that showed that she knew perfectly well that it wasn’t English. We gave her a name that was supposed to have the same pronunciation in English and Spanish, but her ear was more sensitive than that, and I noticed that she pronounced her own name in three different ways depending on who she was giving it to.

  2. I guess my family has been “naturally” using OPOL since our three sons were born (now age 24, 20, and 18). My husband was born in the USA (where we live) and speaks only English. I am a native speaker of Polish with English being my second language. My mom was in the mix too and she only speaks Polish. Mixing of languages was not a problem at all, however, ever since our sons went to school, they have had a strong preference for English (we cannot eliminate other influences, e.g. TV, after-school activities, etc.) The outcome is that as young adults they are fluent speaking Polish, understand it perfectly, however, reading and writing is not where it should be. To this day, they use Polish when communicating with me, however, they are far from being bilingual. Polish is not at the same level as English in their pronunciation, grammar, and ability to express emotions. My goal was not to make my sons perfectly bilingual (I do not think it is obtainable in the situation when the children are exposed to one language so much more than to the other), but to give them practical knowledge of Polish, which, I think, we achieved.

  3. This is excellent analysis. There’s so much opinion and speculation about raising bi- and multilingual kids masquerading as fact, that any critical reasoning such as what’s in this article is so important. When I lived in Germany, I was there on a three-year contract (that turned into a two-year contract) and I made the difficult decision not to have my preschool aged son learn German. It was ironic, because most of my colleagues in the same boat were so gung ho about having their kids learn a second language, and here I was the only one not wanting to do that, feeling like a hypocrite since I was so into language learning myself. But it was a very personal decision between me and my wife, and I took into account a lot of factors, and I think for my particular situation I made an acceptable choice. Still, I felt guilty, because people were telling me I was shortchanging him, and I soon realized they didn’t have any more answers about this than I did.

    Anyway, again, great article.

  4. Yeah, we raised our two sons OPOL, and have seen some differences in the outcome. Our older son (age 20) appears to have a real talent for languages and is perfectly bilingual in English and German, and picked up Dutch without any difficulty when we lived there. Our younger son (14) can speak English but is clearly more fluent in German – but he speaks fluent Bavarian, which the older son does not. I do think it’s important to look at the circumstances surrounding the OPOL family as predictors for success – for instance, how much time does the child spend with the parent who speaks the minority language, and is the minority language spoken exclusively by the one parent, or is the child exposed to a speech community? Does the child have sufficient motivation to learn the minority language? In our case, it was grandparents bearing gifts that really showed our sons the value of using both languages.

  5. I’ve been around many families like this and never seen a case where the kids didn’t end up learning both (or all three) languages, though each child seems to show different natural patterns and there is very often a bit of a preference for one of the languages. On the other hand, I remember being on a train in Spain and hearing a British mother with her (obviously) Spanish son (he seemed about 8 or 9 years old). She literally said every single word to him in English and he responded to her in 100% Spanish, refusing to say a word in English. He looked angry about something and seemed to be using this as a way to ‘punish’ his mom. So, anyway, I guess there is a full spectrum of possibilities.

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