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Raising Arabic-Speaking Children (Part 3)

April 15th, 2011 63 comments

Earlier, I recounted our attempts to raise bilingual children in Seattle. Next, I depressed readers with the story of our first four years in Dubai.

So, in 2005 we transferred our three children to an international school, where they blended right into the diverse student population. At this school there were more Arabic options to choose from. The Arabic classes were divided into Arabic A (First Language Arabic) and various levels of Arabic B (Second Language Arabic).

For years, other mothers asked me, “Is your child in Arabic A or Arabic B?”

Of course, Arabic A was the high-status answer, and we fell straight into this mindset. So for several years we kept our children in Arabic A—even though the fit was all wrong. By this time, my husband was speaking mostly English with our children, yet he clung to this notion of Arabic A. He could not accept the idea of our children speaking Arabic as a second language—even though they hardly spoke it at all.

Eventually we came to our senses and gradually moved our children into the appropriate level of Arabic B. The pressures of Arabic eased and we all felt better. Meanwhile, I noticed many Arab children with two Arabic-speaking parents were also in Arabic B. They were wrestling with the same language issues that plagued us!

In the mean time, we had other educational matters to deal with—writing issues, math issues, behavior issues… At fifth grade, each child started French. (More complications!) By seventh grade, our son had twelve separate subjects.

For a while, Arabic turned into just another subject—one more class among many. We got busy with our hectic family life, and when we weren’t looking, our children’s Arabic started to improve.

New tutors made a difference. For our oldest son, we hired a youthful, energetic man. Our son admired him and now wanted to do well at Arabic. For our daughter, one of her cousins offered to tutor her. And so, our daughter, who year after year refused to speak Arabic, gradually started to do well in Arabic class.

Flash forward to the present. Our children are all doing much better in Arabic. (Well, two out of three.) Let me start with our youngest (age 9), who is still in the throes of I-hate-Arabic. I refer to him as our “Wild Card” because we still don’t know where his language will go. He spent virtually his entire life in Dubai, and yet he’s made the least progress in Arabic. He does speak “Playground Arabic” with his cousins, but he still has a long way to go.

As for our daughter (age 12), there has been a transformation. At her most recent parent/teacher conference, the young Arabic teacher told me, “She’s confident speaking Arabic. She raises her hand often. Her speaking skills are good. She helps her classmates.”

Really? I leaned forward and stole a peak at the teacher’s notes. Yes, she was talking about our daughter—our daughter!—who had refused to say a word of Arabic for all those years.

Next, the teacher told me about a change in the curriculum. The new textbooks now have an “Expression” section in each chapter. Students are now required to express themselves in both spoken and written Arabic. The teacher told me that she was trying to get the whole Arabic department on board with this new approach.

At last! A shift in Arabic-teaching methodology! I predict that if there’s to be a true change, it will be this next generation of Arabic teachers—dynamic and open-minded teachers like our daughter’s—who will propel it.

Finally, our oldest son: He’s nearly 16 and nearly 6 feet tall. He now speaks Arabic almost fluently (albeit with a limited vocabulary). At some point in the last two years, a switch flipped inside his head. We are not sure what triggered this; even he’s not sure. I suspect it was prompted by multiple factors: family trips to Jordan and the West Bank, participation in pro-Palestinian rallies, and association with his Arabic-speaking peers who think it’s good to speak Arabic. (Peer pressure in our favor!) Our oldest son now speaks Arabic every chance he gets—with relatives, salespeople, falafel vendors, waiters at Chili’s… Once I asked him what language he spoke at the homes of his Emirati friends.

“Arabic, of course,” he told me. “I don’t want them to think I’m a dumb white kid.”

So, there you have it. In the end, what drove his desire to speak Arabic was his strong personal identity—his desire to be Arab and not “a dumb white kid.”

Meanwhile, my husband believes it was due to all those Arabic storybooks he read to our son when he was little.  If that is the case, then he better get busy reading to our nine-year-old. There’s still time!

Raising Arabic-speaking Children in Dubai (Part 2)

April 12th, 2011 15 comments

In my last post, I narrated our attempts to raise bilingual children in Seattle. Our plans were not working. So, in 2001 we moved to Dubai with the goal of exposing our children to Arabic language and culture. We were moving to an Arab country. How hard could it be?

Once in Dubai, we had to choose a school right away. At the time the American schools offered little or no Arabic instruction. International schools typically offered the minimum—one hour per week!

We selected a private bilingual Arabic/English school where students studied Arabic using the national curriculum. They had two hours of instruction in Arabic per day while other subjects were taught in English with American textbooks. It sounded like an ideal bilingual situation—right?

Meanwhile, we soon figured out that Arabic wasn’t widely used in Dubai. With 80% of the population as expats, English is the language on the street—a fact we couldn’t quite grasp until we experienced it for ourselves. Thankfully, our children were exposed to some Arabic via their Palestinian relatives who lived in the UAE.

Besides, our children would learn Arabic in school, right? Well, we gradually discovered a problem there, too. The general method of Arabic instruction was “Copy/Memorize”—an approach shockingly behind the times (a problem all over the Arab World, not just in Dubai). My first grade son complained bitterly that he “hated” Arabic class (a complaint repeated for years).

My husband and I tried to stay upbeat despite the tortures of Arabic homework, which consisted of copying passages, memorizing texts, practicing dictation, and often shedding tears. I wondered if it was worth it. My husband said, “Of course!” Meanwhile, he, who had been so diligent about speaking Arabic to our children in Seattle, now began to let English creep in.

The next year, our daughter started kindergarten and continued her policy of never speaking Arabic. Year after year, she remained mute in Arabic class. Our parent/teacher conferences went something like this: “She seems to understand Arabic. She just won’t speak. Not one word.”

Of course, unlike in Seattle, none of our Dubai neighbors were impressed with our bilingual attempts. Their children were bilingual or trilingual—and seemed to achieve this effortlessly.

“What’s the big deal?” one Moroccan friend asked. “Kids naturally pick up language.”

Yes and no, I tried to explain (a bit too defensively). Children pick up spoken language —provided they get adequate exposure. However, learning to read in two languages (especially two different scripts) takes effort. To complicate matters, the Standard Arabic taught in schools is hugely different from the dialect spoken at home.

Around this time, we began a long string of Arabic tutors. They were mostly women who had been teaching Arabic for decades and were set in their Arabic-teaching-ways. When the tutor came to the door, our children ran and hid. Granted, because of the tutoring, they were able to pass Arabic class (barely), but our children had developed a negative attitude toward Arabic.

By then, my husband was speaking more English at home. Despite weekly visits with Arab relatives, Arabic had become more like a “foreign language” for us. My son would speak it only when prompted. As for my daughter, she still refused to utter a word of it. I came to accept that she would be a “passive bilingual”—understanding Arabic, but never speaking it.

As for English, I realized our children were slipping behind their American peers in writing. Also, with so many hours spent on Arabic, it left no time for the arts. I continued to wonder if it was worth it. My husband assured me it was, but he, too, began to have doubts.

After four years, we eventually found space for our children in an international school which offered daily Arabic instruction. We waited for an improvement….

Read Part III of Raising Arabic-Speaking Children.

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

April 10th, 2011 15 comments

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.