Jeff grew up speaking both Spanish and English. Caroline, speaks only English. They want their new baby to grow up bilingual, and they have chosen the “One Person, One Language” (OPOL) method of language learning to teach their son.
The OPOL method is one of the most widely used bilingual language learning systems in the world, according to Dr. Barbara Zurer Pearson in her book Raising a Bilingual Child [Living Language/Random House, 2008]. With OPOL, each parent speaks only the language that is native to that parent when communicating with the child. Children quickly learn to associate a particular language with the appropriate parent.
The Advantages of Bilingual Parenting Using the OPOL Language Learning System
The primary advantage to the OPOL method is that children grow up able to communicate with the extended family of the parent who speaks the minority (non-community-based) language as easily as with the family and community of the majority language speaker .
OPOL is a flexible strategy for raising multilingual children. For example, if both parents are equally bilingual themselves, either parent can be assigned as the consistent speaker of the minority language. In a situation in which each parent speaks a different minority language, they can each speak that language with their child and let the community be the teacher of the majority language. In this way their children will grow up trilingual.
If the family is mobile, such that the majority language of the community is likely to change from time to time, the core languages spoken in the home can remain constant.
The Disadvantages of the OPOL Method of Language Learning for Bilingual Families
As in any bilingual learning situation, the kids may, on occasion, mix the languages, even inventing words based on early confusions. However, according to Dr. Pearson, over time the languages will sort themselves out.
Drs. Kendall King and Alison Mackey, in their book The Bilingual Edge [HarperCollins Publishers, 2007], caution that if the minority language speaking parent is also one who, for various reasons, spends less time with the children, the majority, or community, language could become overly dominant. Unless the parent of the minority language has an absolute expectation that their children will be truly bilingual, they might very well become “passive” bilinguals rather than “active” ones, listening to the minority language parent in one language but answering in the other.
On the other hand, if the parent who speaks the minority language is the primary caretaker of the child, it may be difficult to maintain the minority language when out of the home and in the community. For some it may feel awkward to speak to the child in the target language when others are speaking to him or her in the language of the community. It will take resolve and determination to continue to communicate in the desired second language in a variety of contexts.
With only one source of language model, it is possible that the minority language will not develop as strongly or as accurately as the majority language. However, this can be corrected with additional educational experiences. In the same vein, if there is no formal schooling available in the minority language, the child might learn to speak well enough, but might not have adequate exposure to reading and writing that language – another correctable situation.