We're talking mother and father tongue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am


The One Person, One Language (OPOL) method is arguably the most widely used approach for multilingual children. The idea is that each parent uses one language when communicating with their children, typically their mother tongue, so youngsters associate that language with that parent. But such roles need not be so clearly defined.

'Despite its [OPOL's] popularity, it is always good for the child to hear the language from more than one person,' says Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association in San Francisco. 'Parents can enrol children in playgroups or get a native speaking nanny or au pair.'

Bosemark says children in a bilingual household will mix up the languages, but such mistakes are harmless.

'A child's brain has more than enough horsepower to cope with two languages or more,' she says. 'Some mixing will occur, but it is temporary. As the child increases his vocabulary in each language, this automatically disappears.'

French linguist Maurice Grammont coined the term 'one person, one language' in 1902, suggesting that by separating the languages at the start, children in bilingual households can avoid confusion.

If both parents are equally bilingual, one can be the consistent speaker of the minority language. When each parent speaks a different minority language, they can talk to their children in their own language, and the kids can learn the mainstream language at formal classes and in the community.

Australian expert George Saunders, writing in his 1988 book Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens, points out that the OPOL approach ensures that youngsters make regular use of each language, which is particularly important for a minority language, which otherwise has little support.