Being multilingual

About OPOL

In articles about bilingualism and OPOL we usually find two different labels: “one parentone language” or “one person one language” which, in my opinion, is a bit misleading.

The term of OPOL was first introduced by the french linguist Maurice Grammont in 1902. In Observations sur le langage des enfants (Observations on Children’s Language), he introduced the idea of une personne, une langue. Literally translated from the French as one person, one language.

He theorized that by separating the languages from the beginning, parents could prevent confusion and code-mixing in their bilingual children. Therefore if each parent speaks only one of the two languages to the child, the chances that the child will mix the languages are reduced. By using his or her own language each parent gives an example of adult language use.

Many studies followed like the one of Jules Ronjat, Le Développement du langage: observé chez un enfant bilingue (The Development of Language: Observations of a Bilingual Child). Observing his son, Louis, Ronjat came to the conclusion that the consistent use of two languages at home from birth on, is a major factor in achieving bilingualism. He noted that Louis had acquired and mastered two languages in a similar phonological order to that of the average monolingual child.

In linguistic circles the term of OPOL is very common and is frequently used in books and articles since the 1980s as a way to describe a child being brought up as a simultaneous bilingual. In these studies we find the word parent alternate with person (cfr. B. Bain and A. Yu, Cognitive consequences of raising children bilingually: One parent, one language, Canadian Journal of Psychology, vol.34(4), Dec. 1980, 304-313). This leads to confusion as the use of parent instead of person implies that the parents are the only linguistic role models for a child.

In my opinion, Grammont’s label one person one language is much more appropriate in our society. It includes also bilingual mum-mum or dad-dad families and families where one parent is absent and another person takes the caregiver-role. Moreover, it does include also other persons in our children’s life like sibilings, extended family, daycarers, nannys, babysitters  etc..

15 replies »

  1. I agree! It was actually our discussion about this that made me write a similar post. I think our society is much more complex than previously thought. Also, OPOL is a method for raising bilingual children, when many of us- as we both do- have more languages than just one.

  2. Such a good point! I was speaking today with a woman who was worried about sending her child to a Dutch school (the family was british/dutch) vs an international school. Either way, the family would have a one person, one language environment, but the added weight of the school would likely make a big difference on the child’s ability to read and write in the minority language. This situation is often more complex than the one parent/one language tag allows.

    As an aside – I have seen your comments on The European Mama blog and Nomad Parents and I am so excited to have found your blog now. I can’t wait to read through the archives.

    Thanks -Lynn

    • Thank you Lynn! That’s very kind of you! I really like your website and am always looking forward to read your articles. About your friend: did she decide yet? We found it quite difficult too. The language at school and the one the peers use the most have an incredible influence on a child.

  3. I think our society has changed a lot since Grammont, Ronjat etc.. Multilingual parents switch regularly to the other language(s). You really can’t avoid it. And if both parents are bilingual or multilingual, you can’t be consistent with the OPOL. But I’ll write about this in another post. Let’s also say that bilingual families who were considered an exception 40 years ago, are almost the norm today.

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