Is ‘one parent, one language’ the gold standard for bilingual families?

One most popular, if not the most popular, ‘method’ for rasing bilingual children is ‘one parent, one language’ (OPOL). Generally speaking it’s important to be consistent with the language in which one speaks to a child, especially when children are just beginning to talk – ie. Mum speaks Spanish, Dad English.

It means the child learns to distinguish between the languages spoken at home, and out in the real world. It’s a method that, broadly, we’ve followed with our daughter. Even at age two and a half we clearly notice that she uses much more Spanish in Spnish environments, much more English in English ones.

Don't negate vocabluary

Reinforcing the ‘correctness’ of vocabluary in the other language can be beneficial.

Consistency is important to know where they are with their language. However, there are times when deviating from the rule if the other parent is at least partially skilled in both languages. Say for example, the child is asking/telling you ‘es una fresa?’ (it’s a strawberry) it’s probably better to answer, ‘Si, es una fresa. In English it’s a strawberry. Fresa en espanol. Strawberry in English’.

Doing this does not negate the original utterance (simply saying it’s a strawberry might leave the child thinking they were mistaken). It reinforces it.

There are other situations were a modest deviation from the one parent, one language rule can be helpful and not a hinderance. In some families parents may communicate in just one language all the time. In others they may effectively mix and match between to languages. It generally isn’t important to the child which language or languages parents are speaking to one another. There is certainly no reason to standardise a language when speaking in front of the children. In fact, it’s probably helpful if ‘family discussions’ can and do take part in either language at different times as this means one language is not relegated to second-class status.

Tower of Babel

Children are naturally skilled at differentiating between different languages. Many societies are naturally multilingual. Childrens’ brains don’t explode.

Sometimes of course a child just simply understands a concept better in the other language and for the sake of getting them to get the message the other parent may switch languages. This is not going to do much harm. Probably less harm than the children sticking their fingers in an electrical socket or running into a busy road!

What’s more important for the child’s language development is plenty of quality interaction with parent that speaks language one and the parent that speaks language two. That’s where it really makes a difference and where consistency helps, especially when out and about. The parents should continue speaking their own language to the child, otherwise one language risks being relegated to the ‘wierd home language’.

While you will read a lot of information about the terrible dangers of ‘language’ mixing, don’t sweat it. In some multilingual societies languages are mixed and blended and contorted into a huge cacophony and children still manage to cope just fine. The one parent one language rule is a good rule of thumb, a good foundation or starting point, but you’ll soon learn works for you in your own unqiue family setting. Good luck!