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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.