Wednesday, 29 May 2013

When OPOL Does Not Work - Exposure, Glamour Factor and Resources

When OPOL does not work, it can be difficult to find the reasons. Many people put it down to lack of exposure to the minority language, oftentimes citing a minimum requirement of 30% to 40% of exposure.

Annabelle from The Piri Piri Lexicon is a linguist. Here she takes apart the "myth" that children need at least 30% exposure to a language in order to acquire it.

Not being a linguist myself, I can only speak of our own experience. We are a quadrilingual family (see our family language diagram):
Mother - Algerian Arabic
Father - German
Mother & Father - French
Majority language outside the home - English
Our two older children (8 and 5) are exposed to English for at least 8 hours a day, between school, friends, after-school activities, TV and books. Knowing that they are roughly awake for 13 hours a day, that leaves 5 hours for the three other languages. So:
English -> 60%
Arabic, French, German -> 40%

Our "method" is OPOMLAH (One Parent One Minority Language At Home). That does not accurately describe it either as we have three minority languages, being myself in charge of transmitting two of these.

According to the 30-40% rule, there would be no way for our children to speak anything but the majority language. In particular they would have no German at all, as they only see their father two hours a day, and that's when he is not away overnight for work (15%).

Let me tell you this is far from being the case. They do speak German, and in the case of the eight-year old, can read and write it. How come?

To start with there is the week-end, which we strive to always spend together, immersed in our three home languages. We travel once  a year to Germany, and get visitors a couple of times a year, for a weekend at a time. We have loads of books and DVDs.

The main advantage we have is: we do not speak English at home.

Both BabelDad and I speak English fluently. We do code-switch, but we only speak French between us, making English the majority language OUTSIDE the home.

The second very important factor is that German is supported by books and DVDs.

Everything has got a name in German. The girls may not know the words, but they can be sure their dad does and will share it.
This is contrary to Algerian Arabic (or Moroccan Arabic) which lacks resources. Books and programmes are in an altogether different language - classical arabic. Also, the Algerian word for car is tounoubil (automobile), a truck is camioune (camion) and a phone is tilifoune (téléphone). The classical Arabic words exist (sayyara, shahina and hatif). But I would never dream to use them in my daily conversations as it would simply be odd.

Moreover, speaking a second language is usually a positive thing, yet not all languages fall into the same tier.

In most western countries, French and German are glamorous. Arabic is not glamorous.

We are fortunate to be in England, where I can feel at ease speaking my language, most of the time. Not sure I would feel the same way in other countries.

In a bilingual family, where one of the home languages is the majority language, the 30%-40% rule makes sense to me. That means that ideally, the main carer should speak the minority language.

However, the facts that:
  • the majority language is also a family language
  • the minority language is not supported by written and visual resources
could have precipitated the demise of Arabic acquisition in Stephanie's family. If the minority language had been French, or Spanish, or German, then the outcome might have been different.

As Annabelle points out, it is hard for parents to quantify how much exposure their children get to various languages. Even when an approximation is possible, language absorption is subject to exposure, as well as the languages' social status and availability of supporting resources.