Being multilingual

OPOL among multilingual siblings?

If you raise bilingual or multilingual children, you probably start with the ‘one person one language’ (OPOL) method, in order to promote the bilingualism. This can work for the first years of your children, but it might change as soon as your children start going to daycare or school and are exposed to one or more further languages outside home. It becomes even more complicated, when they don’t talk the same languages at school and daycare.

In her book Bilingual Siblings. Language Use in Families, Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert points out that school has a strong effect on language use. From nursery or primary school, children spend more than 40% of their day with their friends.

In fact, multilingual children who were used to speak certain languages within the family, are tempted to change their language use when they start to go to nursery or preschool where often only one of the languages or even another language than those spoken at home, is used. It has to do with peer pressure and the fact that the children have to follow new rules. In some schools – even some international ones! – children are not allowed to talk another language than the one used in school. If the choosen school is monolingual, a multilingual child will feel that using a language that only few people understand, is inappropriate. This pressure increases with the time the children spend in this context, away from home. – The risk is, that the home or minority language is used less frequently at home.

Children are very pragmatic in their language choice. It’s more logic for them, while attending an English school, to discuss school topics in English. They might still follow OPOL while talking to their parents or caregivers, but they probably will opt for another language while talking to their siblings.

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert asked 105 families to complete an online survey about the language their siblings used together and found out that there is a clear link of school-home language for the siblings. If parents choose a school with one parental language, this is probably not perceived as a “problem” in the family. But if the school language is another one than the ones spoken at home, it can have the negative effect to “suffocate the minority language” (p.65). If now siblings have a particular bound through the minority language (because they share experiences or memories) or “because they appreciate the value of speaking the minority language to communicate with extended family or when visiting the country” (p.66), they will make the effort to avoid a passive use of it at home, i.e. try to use it more often.

If you speak two or more languages within your family, which language will your children choose to communicate among them? And why would they choose one language instead of the other(s)? Two children could easily agree on one of the family languages, but it can also happen that they prefer the daycare or school language. Or that they don’t agree on one language and choose a third or fourth one.

Fact is, that for a multilingual child it is very natural to switch from one language to another. Depending on the context or subject, they will easily switch even without realizing it. Multilingual siblings don’t have only one language in common and they will always alternate among those they know. Some parents feel the pressure to stop their children doing code-switching, but as code-switching is not a sign of linguistic weakness, they shouldn’t worry.

When my twin daugthers were born, I was wondering which language my son would talk to them (he was 3.5 years old at the time). Would he talk Italian or Swissgerman, or maybe Dutch? And what about OPOL then? Shouldn’t siblings apply the OPOL method as well? But he would have to choose either Swissgerman or Italian…

I observed that he sung Italian nursery rhymes and talked Swissgerman to them while telling stories, and did also tell them about his day at the Dutch daycare in Dutch (and sung Dutch songs etc.). He did switch from one language to the other. First I thought that his choice was somehow related to the topics, but  it wasn’t. His choice was really random. – I didn’t stop him doing this as it would have been very unnatural for him to choose only one language because his world was made of three languages.

Now, more than 7 years later, my children still share the same languages – English is their fourth language that they use at school – and they switch from one to the other, depending on their mood. – If they still do code-switching? Yes, but I observe that the words they’re switching are more complex. And they often switch from one language to the other during dialogues. Sometimes I ask them to please say the whole sentence in one language, but only if we have time for it, because the most important thing is to keep the conversation going and I have to admit that we have high-speed conversations at our house and all three children love to talk – a lot! And for me this is the best sign that “our” method is working.


What about you? Are you in a similar situation? How did and do your children cope with their multilingualism?

20 replies »

  1. Facinating, Ute. I have observed our neighbors, who speak English and Spanish, often switching languages mid conversation when talking to each other if they are in with us. I am amazed how eaisly they are able to do so. To think your family switches back and forth between four languages is amazing. Love this post.

  2. As you know, my husband and I are German and we just became new parents in January. We decided that we would only talk German with our daughter at home and everything English she’d learn by TV, babysitter, daycare etc. Well… we try really hard. My husband is good in only talking German, but for some odd reason, I always fall back into talking English to our daughter. Even though I don’t want to, but the first thing that comes out of my mouth when talking to her is English. I sometimes catch myself and quickly say the same thing that I just told her in English, in German again. I really think it is smarter to only speak our language inside our home and English everywhere else.

    • Yes, Peggy, English is probably your dominant language right now. I wouldn’t consider it a problem yet. Your baby does hear you speak English and German regularly, so you’ll not going to confuse Mila. You’re probably experiencing what I did experienced with my son. I often switched from Italian to German, especially when talking to my husband (in German) and my son (in Italian) and felt a bit confused… If you’re planning to stay and not to go back to a German speaking country, speaking German would be “smarter”, as you say, because you would give Mila a great input at home.
      You can still talk English to her if she goes to daycare (that would probably be in English?) or school. But it’s too early for that. It took me several weeks to switch from Italian to German, when we decided to make German our family language. And still today, when I have a spontaneous reaction, I talk Italian. I can’t help it, and my children find it funny (and understand everything I say…). Have you considered the situation where you’re all with your parents, your siblings or your parents in law? Would you talk German to them and English to Mila? Would you feel comfortable with that?

      • We definitely won’t go back living in a German speaking environment. But we definitely want her to understand, speak and write the German language fluently, as our families that live in Germany barely speak any English! I would love for her to be able to talk to them on the phone or when they come visit us, but I wouldn’t mind talking English to her in front of my German speaking family. Although it would be a little odd if they don’t understand what I’m talking about with her.

  3. Thank you Nate! Yes, it’s pretty “coulourful” sometimes, but when we’re tired, we switch only among two languages 😉 It’s feels like there are no frontiers between the languages we have “in our heads”.

    • Peggy, but you can still talk English with your daughter and still talk German with her when your family is around. Do you talk German with your husband? If you explain to Mila that you speak German so that your family can understand you, she will accept it, as she will accept that your husband talks English with people who don’t understand German.

      • yes my husband and I are talking German to each other. Although it is often quite the mix of German and English in one sentence. LOL …

      • Oh, you’re code-switching! 😉 Just kidding. I just asked to know if your daughter will hear you speak German within your family, that’s all. It’s quite exciting, isn’t it, when your child is still a baby but you think about how it will be when she will start talking.

  4. We tried the OPOL method with my eldest, who is now 4, but the problem we had from day one, that isn’t factored into this method, is Grandparents – my Japanese husband’s parents live next door and see my children daily. They don’t speak English (my main language), so my children, especially my eldest, have always had so much more exposure to Japanese. I made the mistake in the early days to also speak to him in Japanese when we were with my in-laws as I didn’t want to seem rude. However, I learnt from my mistake and now with my daughters, 3 and 1 years old, I speak only English. When 4 year old is at preschool my 3 year old speaks to my 1 year old in English, but once he comes home they all switch to Japanese. 🙁 He also asks me to say things in Japanese rather than English, but recently I tell him I can’t speak Japanese well enough to try and encourage him to speak to and listen to me in English. Another thing I do differently with my daughters is read to them in many languages which I didn’t do with my son. He will listen to the stories now too, but he doesn’t repeat things like my 3 year old does. She will say some things in Spanish, French and German. I have yet to hear any of them say anything in my native tongue, Irish!!

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Elle. The OPOL method seems so “easy” but it’s not! Especially when you the language situation changes within the family or the social environemnt – due to a move to another country, living next to family who supports one language (and maybe not the other…) – and then there are the siblings. What works with one, may not work with the other. Sometimes a long-term language plan helps, but then, when unforseable things happen, you have to rethink plan B, C etc. I’m really glad you share your experience because I am in a similar situation (except the inlaws ;-)). If my children could choose the language me and my husband should talk to them it would be chaos. One Italian, one German, the third “German and English and Italian…” and this only for me. That would be crazy. But it’s their language preference. At the moment. And this can change. And it will change.
      It’s so frustrating when our multilingual children speak x languages but not the one we cherish the most. I’m in the same situation and I just hope that one day (not to far in the future) they will find a way to talk more Italian to me and Swissgerman to my husband. Don’t give up with talking English with your children. All of them. I really like that you read to your daughters in many languages too! Just one question: why don’t you do it to your son now? Do you think it’s somehow “too late”? I don’t think it is. Or do you think he wouldn’t listen? What about CD’s or DVD’s? Something that captures his attention and that doesn’t come directly from you? I noticed that my son was much more willing to talk (and then read) Italian when it was someone else who asked him to read or listen. Now I don’t have any problem with that anymore: sometimes he asks me “let’s talk Italian today, mum”: that makes me really happy!
      I’m looking forward to knowing more about how and what you’re doing with your children. I’m glad you found my blog. Bis zum nächsten Mal, à la prochaine y ¡hasta luego! 🙂

      • 🙂 The main reason I don’t read as much to my son is because he is at preschool from 9am to 2pm and I tend to read to my daughters while he is at school. He does like watching DVDs every now and then and he does enjoy CD books. It might be the way to go; to get some more books with CDs for him. I am glad to have found your blog and look forward to reading more when time allows! 🙂

      • Hi Elle, I had a similar situation with my son. When he was at preschool I spent time with my girls and read and sung a lot to them. I also did try to have one-on-one time with my son when he came home and we did read together – the girls did listen too sometimes, but my son did choose the topics of the books ;-).
        I can recommend the books. You can choose by age group and topics. And they are great for children who start reading (you can choose the audio-book: while a voice reads the book, the child can follow in the ebook). You can give it a try for free. What really worked very well with my son was to ask him to tell stories to his sisters. He loved it! And it made him proud: the “big brother” can teach his sisters…
        If you know the jolly phonics books, including the letter-songs (you can find them on youtube too) were our constant background song on the way to school (and back…).

      • Thank you so much for all these suggestions; they are great. I really appreciate you taking the time to suggest resources and ideas. My son likes being the “big brother”, so the reading to his sisters will definitely appeal to him. I am going to try that this evening. 🙂 I will also be making use of the websites you suggested. Thank you very very much. 🙂

      • Elle, I’m glad to be able to give some suggestions about this matter. I know how difficult it is to have three small children and each of them has another way of dealing with the many languages they’re exposed to. I think there is a lack of studies about multilingual siblings. I’ll write more about this here. – Please let me know if it worked for your son. I’m very interested in learning from others’ experience with this kind of situations. 🙂

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