As the name suggests, the OPOL method means that each person chooses and speaks a specific language to the child in question. This is usually their dominant language, but it does not necessarily have to be the case. Parents who speak multiple languages might choose the language that they feel more emotionally attached to. Other parents might cherish the challenge of teaching their children a second language which they are fluent in but is not their mother tongue. What’s important is consistency: choose a language and stick to it. The method can be used by anyone in the child’s entourage: parents, grandparents, neighbours, friends, etc. – and most often this will develop naturally.
In our family, I have chosen to speak Swiss German to my children. Not because I feel most comfortable speaking it (and honestly there is nothing more cringeworthy than hearing a Swiss German swear – “Gottverdami nonemau” being one such lovely example!) but because my children are across the channel from their maternal grandmother (the last remaining link to Schwyzerdütschland) and will therefore not be able to automatically learn it from her. In addition, it gives them a precious stepping stone into the world of Hochdeutsch – as similar or different as the two languages might be. As I have mentioned in my previous post, my husband speaks to them in French, and they learn English from nursery and their surrounding environment from living in England.
In addition to being consistent with your “chosen” language, there are two other key factors that influence a child’s ability to speak several languages: exposure and need. First, exposure implies that the child receives enough language input through daily interactions such as lessons, conversations, songs, books, games, etc.
Now I am quite ashamed to admit it, but as I work full-time and my children spend a large chunk of the day either in nursery or commuting to and from nursery with their father, Swiss German is the language they are the least exposed to (at least during the week; come the weekend and my children are inundated with my charming Swiss German wit).
The second factor is need. Now despite what many adults may believe, little children are very cunning creatures indeed. If they know – and by observing us they will – that their parents are fluent in “their” dominant language, they will have little incentive to make the effort of using a minority language themselves. This is definitely the case with our older son Tom who still speaks mainly in English and is only just starting at times to respond with a few words or phrases in our respective languages.
In response to this, several people have suggested that I should pretend that I do not understand when my son speaks to me in English, until he will finally learn to answer exclusively in Swiss German. But honestly, this makes me feel like I am taking him for a complete fool. Obviously, he hears me speaking in English to our neighbours, his nursery teachers, the cashier at Tesco or the First bus driver. He is not dumb; he knows very well that I speak “his” language. So why should I then pretend not to understand HIM when he speaks it? (“Häh? Was hesch gseit?”*) And secondly, Tom, being the stubborn three-year-old that he is, would very likely turn the tables on me and then we would spend 95% of the day pretending that we do not understand each other.
He is in a prime language-development phase. Every day I marvel at his countless language milestones. He soaks up all vocabulary like a sponge and, in an interesting turn of events, has recently started merging two languages to make fully formed sentences, resulting in gems such as “Jerry does not want to laver ses cheveux.” (Jerry does not want to wash his hair), “I want Schoggi vo der Chuchi” (I want chocolate from the kitchen) or the ever-so-charming “Oh, I am making un pet” (will let you work that out on your own). So, it would seem that the OPOL method is working to some extent, right?
Coming back to my initial point on consistency, I must admit that I have just recently caught myself being very inconsistent and mixing quite a bit of English and Swiss German – or even worse, simply replying an awful lot of English. Be it tiredness (after a long day of translating into English, my brain needs to make an extra effort to search for Swiss German vocabulary), “consideration” for the English people around us (or better said, not wanting to advertise our foreignness in the currently very Brexit-charged atmosphere), or pure laziness on my part (ugh, he won’t understand what I say anyway, so instead of first repeating it three times in Swiss German and then finally in English, I might as well just cut to the chase). Oh, the bad, bad mother that I am! Interestingly enough, I find that I am actually much more consistent with Jerry. Probably because his current baby babbling is not biased towards to a specific language.
So, there you have it, the first results of our linguistic experiment. Despite the fact that my children are not (yet) little trilingual dictionaries on legs, I have learnt not to be (too) discouraged as even the slightest exposure does seem to be sinking in and is stored away for the day where they might need to blow me away with their Swiss-German skills. I also admit that I came along with the rather arrogant approach of “well look at me, I was perfectly able to do it, so why not them?” – although my sister has since gently reminded me that it might have taken a bit more effort than that. I underestimated how much of a combined effort language-learning actually is (I mean, how hard can it be to just talk to your children?) and that I really need to step up my game if I want my children to truly benefit from their cultural heritage. After all, as my smug husband put it the other night after Tom had correctly named all the farmyard animals from his book in French: “And how many animal names does he know in Swiss German?”
Umm… “Häh, was hesch gseit?”*
*Huh, what did you say?