Which Language Method Should We Choose With Our Baby: OPOL or ML@H?

by expert · 4 comments

Dear Madalena,

I wonder if you could please help us. We are going to have a baby soon, I am Spanish, my partner is English and we live in Spain.

At first we thought we would go for the “minority language at home” method, in our case, English. However, I don’t trust myself to speak English to my child in situations where I am with my friends and family who only speak Spanish.

Therefore we have been thinking of applying the method “one parent, one language”, but again I don’t know if this will be the right approach, as my partner does not speak Spanish at all, which I guess could be a problem in some circumstances, for instance when the three of us are trying to have a conversation together.

I have also heard that whatever language the mother speaks to the kid will end up being stronger, as children tend to spend more time with the mother. If I choose to speak English to my son all the time (even when I am with my Spanish speaking family), will my kid learn Spanish normally when he starts going to school at age 3? Or will it be a problem for him not to have learned Spanish until then?

I would appreciate any advice you could give us on the subject please as we feel confused and desperate.  Thank you very much in advance.

Kind Regards,
Madalena’s Answer:

Dear Yurena,

First of all, warm congratulations on your coming little multilingual. And an extra warm welcome to the world of multilingual parenting. Many, many of us have been where you are now, and have asked ourselves the same questions.

As it happens, your situation matches mine almost exactly, the difference being that we lived in countries where none of our languages was spoken. When our children were born, we parents followed the one parent-one language method by default, as it were, for the same reasons that you give: neither of us felt comfortable using any other language with our children.

What we didn’t expect was that this way of solving the language question in our family would have a very interesting effect: we found ourselves improving our knowledge of each other’s languages the natural way. Speaking to babies and children, and hearing it spoken, is an infallible way to learn a language.  So your partner may soon begin finding his way around Spanish, and not feel shut out of interactions with your baby in this language, even if he doesn’t use it himself.

Also for the reasons you say, that the mother naturally has more extensive contact with a young child, we chose to use daddy’s language to each other, around the children. No problem there either, since you speak English.

The bottom line is that you don’t need to worry about languages: you have too much to think about just now, with a baby on its way.  Languages fall in place naturally for children, so just use them as they feel right to you. You parents decide: your baby will follow suit.

Let me add that there is no problem whatsoever in your child hearing different languages from you, and that he will have no problem learning whichever languages may become relevant to him in future, at any age.

You may want to check out these two Multilingual Living posts, one about parents who don’t speak each other’s languages, the other about how to raise bilingual children:

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa October 7, 2010 at 11:32 am

Yurena’s situation is a lot like mine.
I’m American, my husband is Mexican and we live in Mexico.
We both speak each other’s language to a high level.
We speak English, the minority language, when we are ALONE. rather than when we are at home. We are not always alone at home, and we are not always at home alone. If one of my sister-in-laws, or other family member, the cleaning lady, or a neighbor is at our house we speak Spanish. We do not want to exclude people. I know others do it and don’t care, but I’m not going to do it. If we can speak a language everyone present will understand, we do it.
We read and watch videos mostly in English as we don’t have good TV reception and aren’t fans of what’s on Mexican TV anyways.
My daughters are six and while Spanish is their stronger language, they can speak to their American family in English and do understand and books and movies in English.
I personally think it is easy when English is the minority language. Because English is everywhere. It’s not hard to find materials in that language even here in rural southern Mexico. Everyone comments how lucky the children are to learn English at home, so it’s not embarrasing for them either.
I don’t worry about them hearing my husband’s imperfect English or my imperfect Spanish–rather than learn that, they’ve actually started to correct us. So I don’t think Yurena should worry about her English.
Relax and enjoy motherhood!


2 Corey November 19, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Thank you for your wonderful comment, Melissa! You are so right about enjoying the experience – our children grow up so quickly. It is amazing how emotional language can be and how many different choices we end up making – all of which are acceptable and encouraged. Learning to relax and enjoy the ride is key, isn’t it?


3 Ellen expat February 2, 2011 at 12:20 am

My brothers and I grew up with OPOL: English mother, French father, living in France. Mom always spoke to us in English. Family conversations were fine: the parents spoke in French together, and we’d switch language depending on who we were speaking to. Funnily, i speak English with my brothers but they speak in French together.
Now, I am married to a Hong Kong Chinese. We live in Taiwan, where the language is Mandarin Chinese. Our two daughters are trilingual. I speak French to them, my husband speaks English with them and with me, and they get Mandarin from their grand-parents, the environment and f course school. Their best language is Chinese, followed by English and then French.
You have to expect that one language will be better than the other, in your case, Spanish. What will help is to bring your son to England as often as possible, to spend holidays with the grand-parents if possible. You will find that is when he’ll make the most progress.


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