Raising Your Child Speaking Arabic

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In this post, we interviewed Living Arabic Project founder Hossam Abouzahr about his decision to raise his son speaking Arabic and his experience in this undertaking.

Explain what your Arabic learning journey has been like and why you decided to raise your son speaking Arabic?

I’m a half Lebanese who grew up in the US, went to a private Islamic school up until high school, and most of my life hated the Arabic classes I had to take. I didn’t really start to learn Arabic properly until after my experience in the Peace Corps, after realizing that languages could actually be fun and not just grammar and religious studies, and started studying it on my own and then continued studying in grad school. It was still hours of painful study, but now that I had a better understanding of language and could make it fun, my progress was a lot faster and it stuck with me a lot better.

When it came to my son, it mainly comes down to wanting to give him the chance I didn’t have. I wanted to show him that learning stems from love and curiosity and that it doesn’t have to be — in fact shouldn’t be — miserable every step of the way (although there will always be some hard moments). Once I made the decision to do it, my wife (who is teaching him Urdu while I teach him Arabic) and I discussed different options, but the easiest and most straightforward was that each of us spoke to him exclusively in our respective language and leave English for mainly outside of the house. That way, he would associate each language with someone that he loved, and it seemed easiest given the hectic schedule of two working parents.

What dialect are you teaching him and why did you land on that one?

I’m teaching him mainly Levantine. I say Levantine and not Lebanese because, due to lack of resources, I mix in a lot of Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian material, especially songs and audio stories. We also watch movies in Egyptian and Fusha, so we are already tangling with the diglossic beast. I’m not sure how good of an idea all that is. One Syrian friend who is raising his kids in the UK told me that he is avoiding the Egyptian movies for now because he doesn’t want to confuse his kids, but his situation is different: both him and his wife are first-generation Syrian immigrants and can keep the household all Arabic. From a language learning perspective, research suggests that a child can handle multiple languages/dialects. From my own perspective, having grown up here in the US, you need multiple dialects. I work in an office where I can hear just about every major dialect from the region, and I often bring friends to the house who speak a different dialect. I try to explain to my son that some people speak like this and others like that, and when we play, he likes to sometimes pretend he is a character from one of his cartoons and speak like him. It does have its amusing moments, too, like when my son was begging for a toy the other day and just busted out with an “Arguuk!” (ارجوك).

What were your biggest fears before you began raising him in the language and can you give an example of how some of those fears dissipated?

There is always the concern that one day he will just reject it. But reflecting on my own childhood, my rejection stemmed from hating what Arabic represented, and because no one helped me understand how to deal with the language and its multiple forms. So with my son, I’m focusing on making Arabic fun. He speaks Arabic with me not because he loves Arabic, but because he loves me as his father. I’ve also worked with him to show him that it is okay to ask questions, and it’s even okay if I have to look something up (one of my latest tasks is putting in a bunch of plants and bugs in the dictionary because I’m always getting stumped about what they are). He might still come to a time where he rejects the language, in which case I hope I can be big-hearted enough to remember that I started this out of love and not try to force it on him.

Another fear was just that it wouldn’t be possible. Who’d ever heard of a second-generation half-breed passing on a heritage language that he didn’t even learn properly growing up, especially one as complicated as Arabic? On top of that, despite all of my knowledge of Arabic, I suddenly realized that for a lot of really basic things not only did I not know the word, but when I tried to ask Arab friends who live here they would just shrug and give me the English word. Dictionaries do a horrible job covering child-appropriate language, probably because they are written by middle-aged male academics who don’t deal much with raising kids. So I had to do a lot of research and make certain choices. Was I going to say “stikerat” for stickers, or would I say مُلصقات ? Would I say opossum or فار كيسي ? Are they all just حشرات (insects) or do they have unique names? For better or for worse, I’ve marked out a unique path for my son, capitalizing on my own history and knowledge of Arab and US cultures, with the goal of making my son comfortable in the language.

How difficult was it for you to make the switch to just speaking Arabic with him and how long did it take until it felt normal?

I started from day one, so it wasn’t that hard. The thing about language is that it comes with an association. Once you build that association with someone, it’s hard to break. At this point, it is hard for me to break that association and say something to my son in English, like when we are in a public setting with other kids. It would be a lot harder if I had started at a later age and made the switch because I would have had to break the association and start from scratch.

Was there an aha moment when you realized that this was a doable undertaking?

I’m still not sure if it is doable. The next few years will be key. He is four years old now and starting pre-K. How will he deal with Fusha as he gets older? How will I keep up with resources like books and games? I’ve been able to translate some children’s books into Arabic (dialect) for him, with the help of friends, and I’ve gotten others in Fusha and just memorized them in dialect so I can read them smoothly to him. But I can’t keep that up as books get longer and he wants more. As he gets older, can I keep him interested in Arabic? Can I keep his Arabic at a level that matches his maturity?

How would you compare the emotions you felt the first time your son said a sentence in Arabic v. the first time he called you Dad?

He has always spoken Arabic to me so he doesn’t call me dad. When I pick him up from daycare sometimes I hear him tell the other kids, “I gotta go now my daddy is here,” and can’t help but notice how perfectly his accent changes when he speaks English versus Arabic and how comfortable he is responding to me in Arabic and to his friends in English and switching without any hesitation.

How quickly did your son take to speaking the language and what observations have you had in seeing how a child picks up a language v. your experience as an adult?

My son started speaking pretty young, something that surprised me because many people warned me that if he was being raised trilingual from birth he would likely speak late. I’ve wondered if he is naturally good at languages or if we were actively coaching him from an early age, instead of simply talking and expecting him to pick it up.

Frankly, as an adult, I can actually learn much more quickly. I can go through a language book, breakdown a language quickly, and start imitating rather rapidly. But he has the advantage of time and repetition. I’ve lost count of how many movies he’s seen in Egyptian before he started to use some phrases from them, and that was with me pointing out some of the accent differences (like جه is إجا). At this point, he has a natural ear for the languages we use. In comparison, I don’t speak much Urdu, but what I do say I have clear foreigner accent, especially with sounds I’m not used to like aspirated / unaspirated sounds and the retroflex. He obviously doesn’t understand linguistic and grammatical terms, but I have started to introduce certain ideas by asking him in terms he can understand — like is it a boy or a girl (صبي وللا بنت ), is it one or more than one, when did it happen, etc. —  and then helping him get the sentence agreement right. It’s a natural thing for parents to do, as kids will often confuse sentences and what they are saying at a young age so parents will ask the kids did you mean x or y. I just do it with the added layer of language-awareness.

In what ways has raising your son speaking Arabic improved your own language skills and given you a new source of motivation to continue mastering the language? Can you give an example?

A lot of friends joke that my Arabic has gotten better since I’ve had a son. It’s filled in a certain gap in my own language skills: a childhood in Arabic. I’ve been forced to research childhood vocabulary, things around the house, animals, bugs, and plants, and think about how to explain things in minute but simple detail. It’s to the point where my son’s vocabulary in certain areas, like bugs and birds, is more expansive than a lot of native speakers.

It’s also forced me to think about how to pass on Arabic. Since I’m the main one my son interacts with in Arabic, I have to be extra conscious of the words that I choose. I have to remember to use variety in my language but also to explain it. Making sure to use expressive phrases is really important, but when running around with a busy schedule choosing how to say “your room messy” is not always the first thing on my mind — getting it cleaned up is. However, I’ve also found myself in the middle of dealing with a tantrum and carefully choosing my words to make sure that it is also an Arabic lesson without him even realizing it.

It’s really made me see that childhood vocabulary and tools are really lacking, and because of that, I’ve made an extra effort to expand my Arabic dictionary tools to include this kind of vocabulary. I make little notes here and there for users and myself to see how something might be used by kids. Tools in al-Fusha do not work well at all with kids this young, but then we’re left with what I’ve been doing: a hodgepodge of dialects and tools and just trying to find enough to get by.

A last quick point: studying kids’ language is fascinating. You realize how poor some of the simple rules like masculine/feminine are and simple word orders for sentence structures. You really have to think outside of the box to understand why we speak the way we do. It is, unfortunately, a largely understudied area in Arabic.

In some ways, I imagine you two are learning new Arabic terms and phrases together. What’s your process for when you come across a word or phrase you don’t know at the moment? Do you take note on your phone / carry a notepad with you to remind yourself to look it up, and how do you circle back with your son on that item? Can you give an example of when this has happened?

Usually, I look it up on the spot on my phone. Long before I thought about making The Living Arabic Project accessible to all, I just wanted it for myself so I could stop having to write things down and go through multiple books to find an answer. I just wanted to be able to pull up my phone and check. I’ve taught my son that this is pretty much the only thing I do with my phone when I’m with him — no games or anything like that.

The two best tools for looking things up for him are my own site and then Wikipedia, believe it or not. Wikipedia is nice because I can often find what a bug is called in English and find an English Wikipedia page about it, and then check if there is an Arabic page on it. Occasionally almaany.com will have something, but usually, it does not have anything beyond what Wikipedia and my own site have. If I can’t find it with a couple of quick searches, I note it down on my phone, maybe take a picture of it, to check a couple of resources I haven’t digitized.

As an example, recently we found a dobsonfly on the ground, which is not something I had ever seen before (I’m from further north in the US where the bugs are less big). It was easy enough to find online (search for “creepy bug with wings and pinchers” and it comes up right away). I thought it was dead and tried to grab it, at which point it buzzed up at me, and I whacked it so it died and accidentally taught my son it was an أخو شرموطة . I couldn’t find anything in Arabic, so we put it in a plastic bag and took it home to look at how creepy it was and so I could look it up. Eventually, based on the name for the larva, hellgrammite, I called it  دبانة جهنمية , a hell fly.

Usually, though, looking something up is easy. What’s that little gray bird we keep seeing? Checked it out online, came up with gray catbird, Wikipedia had an Arabic page calling it موّاء رمادي . it took less than two minutes on my phone and then we were back to playing.

As your son gets older, how important will it be to begin traveling together to Arabic speaking countries and what other ideas do you have to continue developing his Arabic language skills as he grows?

My wife and I are both second-generation immigrants, and we are trying to split our time between a lot of places. With the US vacation system of just 2-3 weeks a year, that doesn’t leave us a lot of time to spend abroad, and what we do have is split between different places. That said, I hope that we can help our son have a positive connection and understanding of these places and not one associated with just a “mandatory” vacation.

I think the more important steps I’ll have to take will be inline with tool creation. I translated a bunch of Shel Silverstein poetry, for instance, which I did by using regular expression search features on the backend of my database to find rhyming pairs. I honestly would love it if I could translate some video games into different dialects, and I even started a simple text-based game on my desktop (like the original Zork). Comics, graphic novels, etc. All this would be really fun to work on. I would really love it if movies could be translated into multiple dialects.

I imagine homework is going to be interesting. I’m not sure what approach I’ll take. Obviously what he brings home will be in English, so will I talk about it in English, or will I talk about in Arabic? I can imagine myself translating all the basic math terms and then working with my son in Arabic on his math homework, for instance.

I would also really like to start fun after school activities for kids in Arabic. Like art classes in Arabic, music in Arabic, outdoor exploration in Arabic, even something like video game time in Arabic. I’ve been to some Arabic storytimes, but they are very chaotic, and you have people who are there just to learn the basics, so sometimes it ends up with reader reading in Fusha, and then translating to English for everyone, which is not fun for my son. However, I hope that this a sign that more options will pop up. I want things that are fun for him, that make positive memories in Arabic, instead of just grammar lessons and memorizing religious texts.

You can listen to our podcast interview with Hossam about the Living Arabic Project on our Podcast Page, Spotify, or Apple Podcasts.

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