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My husband and I speak English as our first language but I am of Chinese ethnicity and also a fluent Mandarin speaker (though a tad rusty). We live in the UK. 

To date we have been speaking to our 6 months old son in English only. Our extended families on both sides are English-speaking.

I do want him to learn Mandarin as a link to his cultural heritage, but have felt much more natural interacting with him in English – hence we have not pursued the OPOL method yet.

My questions: 

– I have heard OPOL is best started ASAP, but anecdotally speaking, how old is “too old” for it to work effectively? 

– Will weekly Mandarin classes and playgroups from a young age be enough for him to learn the language?

My worry with using OPOL is that he won’t really have the dail ‘community’ to speak it with apart from me, and that a few years from now he’ll refuse to speak it altogether to me (I will still need to speak English to my husband, and all other family and friends).

Any advice would be gratefully received. Thanks!
Yvonne Tse Crepaldi

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The most important thing for a bilingual child’s first year is to have sufficient exposure to both languages – I’d suggest at least 10% of the time in Mandarin. Most research relates to a sensitivity and discriminative ability to sound and grammar patterns. So do try to offer as much Mandarin as possible.

As to when to start OPOL, earlier is better because it is more for your habituation than merely for the child’s acquisition. The later you start, the more difficult it will be for you to switch. As you described, you already feel more natural in English – this will only get entrenched until the day comes when you want to switch, you will find it so awkward that you might not be able to and just give up.

Classes and playgroups – it depends your expectation. If you want the child merely to have some exposure during early years, so that it will be easier for him to pick up later in life, then I think it’s okay. If you are okay with passive bilingual (hui ting buhui jiang, can understand but not speak), then use the language with him everyday but allows him to reply back in English. If you want him to be an active user of the language – as in no fear in using it, then you need to get him to USE (not just expose to) the language every single day with you and others (preferably some monolingual Chinese).

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