I always imagined my children would speak fluent Arabic, Spanish, French and English. Before having kids and up until the time they could talk, I thought this was totally realistic. Arabic they would get from their dad, a native speaker, Spanish they would learn from me, a non-native speaker but fluent, and French they would pick up from both of us parents as it used to be the language we had in common before we moved to the U.S. and my husband learned English.
The reality is that I was maybe a tad delusional. Once my children began to speak, English dominated and my wispy idealism crumbled. Even though my husband spoke Arabic to them from birth, they did not actually speak much Arabic beyond a few sporadic words. They understood him perfectly but they always responded in English. In order to safeguard Arabic so that our kids would be able to communicate with their grandparents and relatives who did not speak English, we realized we really needed to focus on just Arabic and rally resources behind it. This was a bit of a struggle for me since I am not an Arabic speaker. Whereas with Spanish I could take the lead in helping them acquire the language, with Arabic I was relegated to the role of a cheerleader. And I’d never been very good with a baton.
Despite my frequent frustration in the cheerleader role, here are five things I am doing to support the development of my children’s Arabic. I am also trying to learn along with them. But let’s be honest — when it comes to Arabic, I am definitely the turtle in this household trying to keep up with little sprightly frogs.
1. Remember to be realistic.
Understand that you will not have a bilingual child in the next few months, maybe even years, and also recognize that any exposure to another language you are giving your child is positive and helping to expand their brains. At the end of the day, children really only learn to speak a language when they have a need for it. With your expectations in check, you won’t set yourself up for disappointment.
2. Make sure all media consumption is in the target language.
Start this young! If you begin showing your kids all their movies, iPad games, youtube videos, etc. in your target language from the time before they can talk (or protest!), then they will become accustomed to this system. But if you let them watch in English the majority of the time and then try to switch to another language, they will resist the change. So start young and be consistent.
3. Find music both you and your child love in the target language.
It seems like a natural human instinct to want to sing along to songs we love. When I can’t understand the lyrics of a song I’m into, it motivates me to look up and translate the words. You can do this together with your child. And don’t forget movement! It’s not only fun for kids to invent hand and body motions to the songs but it also helps gel the song into their minds. My children can sing so many songs in Arabic even though they don’t speak it much. They especially love to see videos of Arab kids singing in shows like “Arabs Got Talent.” They also have French and Spanish songs they love to sing along to. At least in song I can hear traces of my dream for them to speak all four languages!
4. As soon as they can read, make your home rich with written words in the target language.
And I don’t mean just books, as if you don’t speak the language yourself, books won’t be that much help. Whether it’s sticky notes on objects, magnets on the fridge or writing with erasable market on the shower tiles and/or curtain, there are many ways you can make the language prevalent in your home and learn a language alongside your child. Try starting with these 30 ideas to create a text-rich home.
5. Get a babysitter in the target language and encourage him or her to speak only in that language to your children.
The babysitter could be a teenager who comes to just play with your kids or it could be more of a nanny if you require regular childcare. It took us a year and a half of Sisyphean searching to find an Arabic-speaking babysitter in the same dialect (derija) my husband speaks as the dialects of Arabic are like different languages. But once we found her, she was a gift for my children’s Arabic. My children finally heard a real-life person who spoke this language beyond their dad and she made it fun for them. If you are wondering how to go about finding this type of person, try craigslist, community centers where people that speak that language congregate, religious communities, local parent listservs, and ask staff at daycares or schools where the language may be spoken.
The most important thing to remember though is to have fun! Try not to force the language no matter how badly you want them to learn. Learning a language should not be a chore for your child and if it becomes one, you may get groans instead of grins. So keep it light and make fun your bottom line.
Today my kids are five and six and although their English continues to dominate, Arabic is a daily part of their life that we work at. We also introduced Spanish about a year ago during afterschool time and my older daughter went to Spanish immersion summer camp so they are on their way to becoming Spanish speakers as well. As for my Arabic, I can’t claim much progress beyond learning lyrics to Amr Diab songs!
Stephanie Meade is the Founder of InCultureParent.com, an online magazine and community for parents raising little global citizens. She is passionate about languages (and speaks French, Spanish and Portuguese) and exploring the world around her and loves sharing that passion with her two Moroccan-American daughters. After many moves worldwide, she currently lives in Berkeley, California with her family but has indomitable wanderlust, which leaves her always imagining where she will end up next.