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Posts Tagged ‘Holly Warah’

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 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.

Sharing My Zeal

April 6th, 2011 58 comments

Hello Friends!

I was nineteen, a young American living in Paris, supposedly living my dream. Yet what was my fantasy?

I daydreamed about traveling in the Middle East. So, after a year of discovering that France was not for me, I took a bus from Paris to Athens and a boat from Athens to Haifa. Soon, I was walking the cobblestone alleys of the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem.

My twenty-year old self wrote in a letter to my family (dated 21 October, 1986) about my first visit to Jerusalem:

I just had a morning I’ll never forget. I went to the Arab market inside the Old City of Jerusalem. . . Coming here is like stepping onto another planet. The ancient walls of the Old City–I don’t have the words to describe them–at night, they’re lit up. It’s breathtaking. . . . Inside, the Arab quarter is a huge maze of tiny streets, winding alleys and stone courtyards. I love walking these streets. . . . Everything is new here: the smells, the food, the climate, the people, the sights. . .

After two years spent exploring Palestine, as well as traveling to Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, I returned to my home in Bellingham, Washington. My fate was sealed because with me was my new Palestinian husband, whom I had met in Bethlehem and married in Jerusalem.

Newly arrived in the US, we had big goals. We needed to finish university, start our lives, establish our careers and begin a family. But first–he had to learn English.

Now flash forward to the present. It’s 2011. We’re raising our three children (ages 15, 12 and 9). We live in Dubai, where we’ve lived for ten years, striving and struggling to create the bilingual, bicultural family that we had always imagined.

Meanwhile, over the years I’ve asked myself: Who am I? Where do I fit in? At times I’ve become obsessed with cultural identity–my own and everyone else’s. I even wrote a novel exploring those themes.

So, why the blog, you ask?

In my own small way, I hope to bring down barriers between Arabs and non-Arabs. I hope to connect with other writers, readers, expats, foreign spouses and anyone else who shares my zeal for the region. I plan to discuss relevant books and share photos and recipes. Naturally, I’ll blog about Palestine and Dubai, but also Morocco (my current fixation) and other Arabic countries.

However, before I launch into a detailed blog post on the tradition of Palestinian cross-stitch, I’d like to hear from you. Tell me your connection to the region and what you’d like to know. Where do your cultural interests lie?

Please tell me by leaving me a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Bye for now & Salam,

Holly