We at Language Preschools are excited to have polyglot and guest blogger Kamila Tekin share her experiences growing up bilingual–and her thoughts on the One Person One Language (OPOL) approach versus other approaches to raising bilingual children.
Kamila believes that impossibilities don’t exist and she doesn’t like to stay in her comfort zone for too long. She grew up bilingual is now learning other languages through unusual and fun activities and shares her progress to encourage other language learners. Get inspired by her journey and check out her tips via these links:
Are you currently raising a bilingual child and wondering how to help her speak both languages very well when she’s older?
The “One Person One Language” technique can be very useful. Often referred to as simply “OPOL,” this is a popular method in which each parent speaks only one language to the child. For instance, one parent speaks only English, and the other parent only speaks the other language (e.g., French).
You may have already heard of this approach but are perhaps asking yourself if it’s really that helpful for raising a bilingual child.
I grew up bilingual and have a good idea of what works for a child and what doesn’t. I want to help you raise children who will thank you when they are older. In this post, I’ll share with you the importance of the One Person One Language approach–and my personal experience with it.
A little about me
I grew up bilingual, speaking Turkish and Dutch. My parents are Turkish immigrants who are now living in the Netherlands, where I was born and raised. When I was young, we used the following rule: only speak Turkish at home, only watch Turkish television, and only use Turkish with extended relatives. I can’t remember if I already spoke a little Dutch at home, but I mainly learned that language in school.
There was a certain distinction between the two languages, and the approach that my parents used was not necessarily a bad approach. If you think about it, the idea makes sense. If your child only speaks Dutch in school and Turkish at home, he will learn to speak both languages very well, right?
But then, I started mixing the languages with my friends
In my neighborhood, there were many other bilingual Turkish children to speak with. Sometimes we felt confused about which language we should speak.
Our vocabulary in Turkish was quite narrow. When we needed to express ourselves accurately and couldn’t find the appropriate word, we used a Dutch word. Nobody corrected us and what we said often sounded funny.
How did this affect my language skills in both languages in the long run?
Now, you may be thinking, ‘What’s the big deal about using two languages at the same time?’
I would advise parents to not do it, and here’s why, based on my experience:
Later in life, I had difficulty expressing myself accurately in both languages
Speaking a mix of two languages affected my Dutch and Turkish in a very negative way. When I grew up and went to the university by age 16 or 17, I sometimes had a hard time writing my essays in Dutch because I’d never really exposed myself to only the Dutch language.
To be clear, I was very good at Dutch grammar and could speak it very well, but sometimes I made sentences and used expressions that made more sense in Turkish than in Dutch. It was hard to write something “formal” like an essay. When a Dutch person would read my work, they would know that it was not written by someone who was raised by Dutch parents.
Of course, with practice and the help of my Dutch friends, I improved my Dutch. Now, I don’t have difficulties writing at all. But it took me some unnecessary years of practice.
With regard to my Turkish, I still can’t express myself 100%. For instance, when someone asks me what I’ve studied in university or a specific topic about my field (e.g., “How do tumor cells grow?”), I can’t answer these questions. Sometimes I don’t know the right words to use and end up giving a lot of examples or just switching to English.
I had a strong accent in both languages
You would probably expect that I would have a good accent in one language and a not-so-good accent in the other one. However, that was not the case. For a long time, I had a strong Turkish accent when speaking Dutch and a strong Dutch accent when speaking Turkish.
That is what happens when you mix two languages. And believe me, it’s not something to be proud of when you grow up. People often asked me where I was born and didn’t believe me when I told them that I was born in the Netherlands.
How I started using One Person One Language and how it helped me improve my native languages
At some point, I decided to use only one language per person and only speak the language with a native speaker from that country.
For example, no matter which languages my friends from the Netherlands can speak, I only speak Dutch with them. Not Turkish, not English, and not even Spanish.
I now only speak Turkish with people from Turkey.
It worked because when you speak one language per person, you separate languages in your brain. You train your brain to think only in one language during a conversation with this particular person. Even when you think of this person or dream about this person, you’ll speak only in one language.
Once I started speaking only Dutch with my Dutch friends, I became better at expressing myself. I started using more typical Dutch expressions and even improved my accent. Now, nobody asks me where I was born anymore. They often don’t even believe that I’m Turkish.
It has also improved the way I’m speaking Turkish and helped me reduce my strong Dutch accent. (I’m not using it frequently enough, though, so I’m still not able to talk about complex topics.)
How you can use One Person One Language for your children
Based on my experience growing up bilingual, I would recommend the One Person One Language technique. Make sure that doesn’t only happen inside the family. It’s also important that the child doesn’t mix up languages when they are with their friends.
Here are some tips for using the One Person One Language approach properly:
Never speak two languages in a mix at all
Children often imitate what their parents are doing. If you’re a parent who’s learning a second language, I know it’s tempting to use a word in your target language while speaking English. It’s important, however, that you’re disciplined and only speak one language.
Don’t even mix two languages when you’re not around your children. They will hear you someday and find it funny to do the same.
Make sure your child speaks one language with one person as early as possible
Start using only one language per person from an early stage so that your child knows what language to speak with whom. Don’t make the person switch to another language. Additionally, ensure that the person who speaks the language has a high proficiency in the language or is a native speaker.
The earlier you begin with One Person One Language, the better it will be because your child will reach a high level where he or she doesn’t need to switch to another language to express feelings accurately.
Make sure your child has enough friends who speak the language very well
You can do whatever you want at home, but the environment of your child is very important.
If your child is growing up in a neighborhood with many other bilingual children, make sure that your child also has some monolingual friends. For instance, if you’re raising your child bilingual with German and English and you’re living in a German neighborhood in the United States, make sure your child also has enough monolingual English-speaking friends.
Make sure your child don’t speak languages in a mix with his friends
I wish my parents had warned me about mixing two languages when I was younger. You can prevent the confusion that I had by reminding your child that he shouldn’t mix two languages with friends.
If he keeps doing this anyway, consider doing more activities where your child can find other friends who speak only one of the languages he’s learning. This will force him to use one language per person.
When your child mixes two languages, let him repeat the sentence
A child may occasionally mix some words. In this case, let him repeat the entire sentence with the correction of the word. When you do this often, he will confuse the two languages less frequently.
Do you think the One Person One Language approach is the best approach to raising bilingual children? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments.