Raising Arabic-Speaking Children in our Free Time (Part 1)

April 10th, 2011

When our oldest son was three and speaking English and Arabic without mixing the two, our suburban Seattle neighbors were impressed.

Our mission was to have a bilingual family, with English as the first language and my husband’s native Arabic as the second. With my language teaching background and my husband’s hands-on approach, we were super-confident. We followed the One Parent/One Language method, each of us speaking our own language. Meanwhile, we inundated our son with Arabic storybooks, software, music and videos. Because he identified with his father, our son naturally wanted to speak Arabic like Baba.

And so, our bilingual journey began in Seattle with great success. We were proud parents—annoyingly smug.

Then our second child was born. We tried the same methods that had worked with our first, but by the age of two, our daughter still showed no interest in Arabic. (Perhaps she sensed how important it was to us.) It was as though the language had nothing to do with her.

Little by little, English become the dominant language in the home. Our son started kindergarten and developed a preference for English while our daughter refused to even acknowledge Arabic. They began to reject the Arabic Disney movies and Arabic Sesame Street we had so carefully selected. It became a constant challenge for my husband to spend “quality Arabic time” with each child. Our bilingual goals were starting to crumble.

We tried different things to jumpstart our children’s Arabic. With two other families we hired an Arabic teacher and set up a weekly Arabic playgroup. We socialized with other Arabic-speaking families. Relatives from the Middle East visited us in Seattle. Day after day, my husband trudged on, reading Arabic storybooks to our children.

Yet none of this was enough.

During this time, I was studying Arabic myself. For a while, I tried speaking it with the children. Once I was in the supermarket with my son, who was about six at the time. I asked him something in Arabic, something harmless like, “Do you want bananas?”

He stopped cold in his tracks, clenched his fists and screamed at the top of his lungs, “DON’T SPEAK ARABIC!”

Right. Of course. I was violating our own One Parent/One Language policy—which wasn’t working anymore anyway. I could feel all of our bilingual progress slipping away.

Soon our third child was born, and our family life grew exponentially more chaotic. By this time, my husband’s Arabic had become mere background noise.

Meanwhile, he was seeking a job in the Middle East. When my husband was offered a position in Dubai, we jumped at the chance. Our children were still little—ages 6, 3 and 2 months. They would surely learn Arabic in Dubai, we thought. We had renewed hope!

As we imagined our new life in the United Arab Emirates, we assumed all of our bilingual problems would be solved….           

Find out what happens in Part II, Raising Arab-Speaking Children in Dubai.

  1. April 10th, 2011 at 17:46 | #1

    Oh, you also have 3 children! (Mine are 7, nearly 3, and 1 month.) Insane. I look forward to Part 2.

  2. Gretchen Coppedge
    April 10th, 2011 at 18:15 | #2

    Having a bilingual grandchild in our multi-cultural family I delight in your story, Holly. I too await part two.

  3. Gretchen Coppedge
    April 10th, 2011 at 18:16 | #3

    And as an added note, I really like the quilt patterns you have given each person who comments. I particularly like mine!

  4. April 10th, 2011 at 18:50 | #4

    I have a bilingual son, and am living in Turkey, so this post meant a lot to me! Baki’s English is far stronger than his Turkish, and he is struggling at school. My husband was not eager to speak to Baki in Turkish, since he speaks to me in English, so it is mostly our fault. Now that we are expecting our second child, I am trying to get him on board for one parent/one language. I am eager to read how your quest for bilingualism developed!
    This is such a beautiful blog, and I find your writing style very easy to read and relate to. I will surely be visiting again — Best of luck — I am sure this blog will do marvelously.

  5. Carla Stern
    April 10th, 2011 at 19:20 | #5

    Interesting. I’m looking forward to part 2. My twins, sadly, don’t speak any other language (Ana does still speak fairly good French) even though I work as a medical interpreter in French and Spanish! However, speaking to them in Spanish is totally unnatural for me and they would probably have the same reaction as your son in the supermarket. And of course language study is STILL grossly undervalued in the US, for some unfathomable reason…

  6. April 10th, 2011 at 23:09 | #6

    I will avoid any spoilers for your readers … 🙂

    Fun read for me since our paths had only barely crossed when your children were young! Now I have 3 kids and 3 languages. One parent/one language not possible here, especially when one parent is away most of the time! I’m just happy they know the Arabic alphabet and can at least understand several words in Thai and Arabic.

  7. Lainey
    April 10th, 2011 at 23:23 | #7

    You’ve mastered the technique of ending the chapter once your reader’s curiosity is piqued. Arghhh….

  8. April 10th, 2011 at 23:35 | #8

    I give your husband tons of credit for his dedication! My husband came a new immigrant with limited English and found it too hard for him to learn English to get by while trying to use Arabic with the kids, so sadly their language skills fell by the wayside. We’re going to start trying again soon!

  9. Linda A
    April 11th, 2011 at 04:47 | #9

    LOL!! Holly. I love our blog! Can’t wait for part two…just read part one to the dh…he laughed about you in the supermarket.

  10. Barbara
    April 11th, 2011 at 05:01 | #10

    Love this Holly!
    Very much the same at my house 🙁
    I guess we can hope that the kids will learn as adults like we did.
    As for me, I’m homesick for Saudi…go figure.

  11. April 11th, 2011 at 06:23 | #11

    Thanks for all the comments. I love hearing about everyone’s experiences raising their children with two & three languages. The fact is–family life is complicated & messy, especially when the kids are little. Sometimes our bilingual goals seem impossible. As I see it, there’s the fantasy…. and there’s reality. Bye for now…

  12. Beth Mahmoud-Howell
    April 11th, 2011 at 17:18 | #12

    Very funny times… at least your kids have had Arabic class all the way thru school. Our new Arabic goal is that Yusef wants to study Arabic at the community college where he is part of the Running Start progrtam. Sofian is debating learning Mandarin Chinese at High school next year, and Anyssa has been studying basic French with our friend Adelaide. We are now revising our goals to “multi-lingual” experiences…..

  13. Danielle
    April 11th, 2011 at 18:11 | #13

    Isn’t it amazing how our children can thwart all our best intentions? We didn’t have the language issues, but I thought all children should wear overalls and my daughter completely rejected all denim in favor of princess dresses.
    I really enjoy your blog, Holly, and look forward to Part 2!

  14. Maureen Kay
    April 11th, 2011 at 19:12 | #14


    Great blog entries! Loved reading them. Thanks for your honest sharing. I’ve learned so much from you over the last couple years, since we met when you were visiting Seattle. And, your website is beautiful.


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