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The “one-parent-one language” (OPOL) approach is regarded as the most common family language system in use to attempt to raise bilingual or multilingual children. With the OPOL approach, each parent or caregiver consistently speaks only one language to the child.

It is often believed that consistency or strict OPOL is the key to the succuess of perfect bilingualism.

However, how consistently or strictly we should follow OPOL rule?

Do we have to pretend not to understand if the child asks us something in the non-target language? Can we switch language in front of children when talking outside of the four walls? Can we allow a certain degree of language-switching, code-mixing, or flexibility? Do extra “language supplements,” such as playgroups, visits from family, or a trip to the country, help children achieve perfect bilingualism if OPOL is not religously followed?

As a parent who is greatly interested in brining up baby bilingual, I particularly want to find out answers to these questions, and discover a realistic way to adapt OPOL to suit my family.

I am beginning a new series on the topics of OPOL. Today, I am reviewing some research done on OPOL system and child bilingualism.

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The term “one person/parent, one language” was first introduced by the French linguist Maurice Grammont in 1902. He theorized that by separating the languages from the beginning, parents could prevent confusion and code-mixing in their bilingual children. The expectation is that the child will associate each of the languages with a different person and, therefore, be able to develop both without much interference from the other.

Based on a case study on his own three children, a parent and linguist George Saunders (1982) wrote in his book Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens that the OPOL approach “ensures that the children have regular exposure to and have to make use of each language. This is particularly important for the minority language, which has little outside support.”

Also based on a case study on her own daughters, another parent and linguist Traute Taeschner (1983) notes that “with the one parent/one language procedure, the child does more than just ensure a consistent source of information, he organizes the world of his knowledge and shares it with the adult, which leads to a better understanding between the child and his interlocutors.”

Traute also points out that OPOL stage is temporary, becoming redundant when the child’s grammatical errors fade away. After that, the child is more willing to speak either language to either parent, or switch as necessary.

Agreeing with Saunders that minority language can be supported through OPOL approach, Leonore Arnberg (1987) argues the best result will be achieved if both parents use minority language when addressing one another. In this way the child’s exposure to the minority language is increased.

In the case of a minority language that the other parent cannot or will not learn, in Arnberg’s opinion, the minority speaking parent must be “absolutely consistent” in the child or the child will lose motivation and will use majority language with both parents.


Susanne Döpke (1992), based on several long-term case studies, believes that there are two factors for successful bilingualism—parent’s consistent adherence to the appropriate language and the insistence that the child respects the OPOL principle. She also points out a parent who provides enjoyable “interaction” with a child is more likely to succeed in passing on his/her language.

However, Susanne (1998) recently remarked that the OPOL approach is “not actually a strategy, but a language choice framework”. This framework “provides a macro-structure, which needs to be realized through micro-structure moves”.

In her book Bilingualism, Suzanne Romaine (1995) discusses that the most common outcome of the OPOL method is children who can understand both languages but only speak the language of the community where they live. This is particularly true if the language is a minority and only spoken by one parent for example. Romaine concludes that quality of language input, especially from fathers, is more important than quantity.

Josiane Hamers and Michel Blanc (2000) describe OPOL as a principle that “each adult should use exclusively his or her mother tongue with the child”. But they aslo propose that the child’s social networks and available linguistic role models are more important for developing bilingualism in a child.

Colin Baker (2000) in his book for parents brining up baby bilingual, defines the OPOL strategy as a way of giving clear linguistic boundaries to the child. He thinks the separation of language makes it easier for a child to know when to speak which language to which parent. Like Arnberg and Romaine, he therefore recommends the parents to use the minority language together thus giving the under-used language more exposure.

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Arnberg, L. (1987): Raising children bilingually: The preschool years. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Baker, C. (2000): The Care and Education of Young Bilinguals: An Introduction for Professionals. Multilingual Matters.

Döpke, S. (1992): One parent–one language: an interactional approach. Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp xviii+231.

Dopke, S. (1998b): Can the principle of ‘one person – one language’ be disregarded as unrealistically elitist? Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 21(1): 41–56.

Hamers. J. & Blanc, M. (2000): Bilinguality and Bilingualism (2nd edition), CUP.

Romaine, S. (1995): Bilingualism. (Second Edition) Oxford: Blackwell.

Saunders, G. (1988): Bilingual children: From birth to teens. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Taeschner, T. (1983): The sun is feminine: A study on language acquisition in bilingual children. Berlin: Springer.

Related posts:
How strictly or consistently do we need to follow OPOL?
Why she speaks more English than Chinese?
How I help my baby acquire a second language?
How babies acquire languages?
Stages of baby’s language acquisition
How children acquire second languages?
Stages of children’s second language acquisition
Never too early to learn second tongue
Being bilingual boosts brain power
Bilingualism and cognitive development
More resources on bilingualism and its effects
Why my baby isn’t talking yet?



  1. OPOL (One Parent One language) | trilingualinprogress

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