Wednesday 16 February 2011

One person, one ___.

Fill in the blank: occupation, attire, hobby, cooking pot, opinion, friend, home, car, TV show, cuisine, book, tone of voice, love, attitude? The daily business we go about and the humdrum things we use. Doesn’t sound quite right, right? Though language does, apparently.

Words like country, or nationality, or culture, or personality would also look funny in the blank. Many of us are transnational and transcultural, on whose modes I will have more to say in future; and our personality has less to do with our “person” than with the people we have to deal with, more on which later, too. But funnily enough, language doesn’t look funny, in the same blank.

It hasn’t done so for many, many years. In fact, the whole expression, with the blank thus filled, has even deserved acronymic recognition, OPOL, like other things that we have learnt to take for granted, such as BBC, CNN or WYSIWYG. Or LOL, which, by the way, doesn’t mean ‘language, one language’.

The P in OPOL can mean ‘parent’ or, more generally, ‘person’. In either case, the P in question associates with only one language, in that the O always means ‘one’ and the L always means ‘language’. All in the singular. We may then want to ask two things. Why singular, and how did this singularity come to be.

The first studies that dealt with parental uses of language in multilingual families concerned families where the parents were, or started off being, monolingual users of their language. As a monolingual, you naturally use your only language with your children, because you naturally use it with everyone else. “OPOL” was the name given to what those parents happened to be doing, in their respective families, with their respective languages.

It then became the name for what all parents are supposed to do, in a textbook example of descriptive norms morphing into prescriptive ones, about which I’ve said a couple of things before: observed behaviour gleaned from specific populations becomes recommended behaviour across the board.

Cartoon © Garrincha

We might as well conclude, from surveys of eating habits among Portuguese families, for example, that all families should adopt the BS policy – for ‘barbecued squid’. Why not? Portuguese squid-eaters are as representative of “all” families as the Western one-language-speakers who backed up the OPOL dictum. 

Eating barbecued squid (even with boiled potatoes and parsley butter) is as alien, that is, as unnatural, to those of us who haven’t grown up with it in their diets, as using a single language with anyone, our children included, is to those of us who are multilingual. Brandishing the “risk-of-confusing-the-child” argument to enforce the use of one language per person begs the question of why the same child shouldn’t get confused when confronted with the use of, say, spoon and fork vs. fingers vs. fork and knife vs. chopsticks, to continue in feeding mode, by the same person.

Languages are not like dental configurations, which, until evidence to the contrary, seem to be unique identifiers of individuals. I’ve mentioned problems with early studies about multilingualism before. One problem with the ones that spawned the OPOLicy is the recurrent assumption that languages have some kind of sacred decision power over people: forcing multilingual caregivers to use a single language takes them for inert vehicles of language transport. It’s like considering having surgery done to your toes, so that they fit pointed shoes or other foot-unfriendly fashionable recommendations. I happen to believe it’s the other way around: the shoe fits the foot, and we choose what to do with our languages.

A second problem is that recommending separation of languages according to speaker offers adult monolingual models to the child. If the purpose is to raise multilingual children, I don’t see why multilingual caregivers should refrain from providing their children with a model of what they intend them to become: multilingual adults.

A third problem is whether so-called OPOL parents actually enforce the “OL” part of the policy. This is a whole other story altogether, a very long one in fact, about which I’ll have much to say in coming posts. Let me just say here that the short of it goes together with branding mixes as the scourge of “proper” language use.

A fourth problem (I could go on, believe me) is that parental OPOL enforcement takes the newcomers to a family as the decisive players in the home language management game. Besides the parents, there may already be brothers and sisters around, and grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, all of whom play their part in the linguistic equation at home, because they all use languages too. My next two posts will have something to say about them.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Sibling talk. Saturday 19th February 2011.


  1. Thank you for finally putting into words what I've been trying to say. I've never been able to clearly articulate why OPOL doesn't work for me. It's because I do not have one language.

  2. Great post! We have a 7 month old baby and we speak 3 languages at home. It sure does not agree with the typical OPOL system the pediatricians here recommended - but I can also say I don't think he speaks 3 languages himself so I can see why it would be confusing to him.

  3. Melissa Sue: I am very glad you found this post of use to you!

    Diana: I share your feeling that we adults tend to assume that what appears confusing to us will necessarily confuse children too....

    Many thanks to you both for your comments!

  4. Thank you so much for this post. Now I have to translate it into German so my monolingual mother, who insists that I only use German with our sons and my husband should only use English, is able to understand it, too. (she is super scared either of them could end up with incorrect ways of speaking English or German) *sigh* I am getting tired of her saying that it is known that "experts say that in a multilingual family it should be OPOL only! which she found through a quick search on google.

  5. Wonderful comment, Ella! So true: you can tell your mum that my husband and I had exactly the same anxious feedback from well-meaning monolinguals, family as well as friends. Do tell her also that most children around the world are raised with several languages from the same people, and are doing just fine.

    Being multilingual is *also* a “correct” way of using languages! If your mum googles some more, she’ll find evidence of this – or let me know, I might be able to point her to German-language sites discussing these matters.

    Not to give you extra work, but you may want to translate this other post, too, ‘The monolinguals in the family’.

    Do keep us briefed on how things develop! :-)

    1. Oh nice. Thank you. I'll check it out and also search for some more articles for my mother (ones I get time to do so. Not so easy with a 3 year old and a 6 month old)


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