Confessions of a Mother Raising a Bilingual Toddler

Last week, I was thrilled when my 19-month old daughter, Aisha, correctly pointed at the giraffe, elephant, bear and bird when I asked her where they were in “The Little Engine that could”. I didn’t use the English words for those animals. If I did, she wouldn’t know where to point. Instead, I asked for the “Zarafah”, “Feel”, “Dob”, and “Asfoor” in Arabic. She clapped every time she got one right. And I kissed her—and squished her—every time she assured me that my efforts did not go to waste.

I was raised in Jordan with Arabic as my first language. On the other hand, my daughter is being raised in the United States. I figured, since she is bound to pick up English from her surroundings, I must speak to her in Arabic—and only Arabic. I thought to myself: “She’s all set. My daughter will grow up fluent in Arabic.”

I kept reassuring myself. Until, I asked many of my older friends with teenagers if what I’m doing was sufficient. They all shared the same opinion.

“If the mother speaks only Arabic at home,” said one of my friends. “That will NOT be enough.”

Most of my friends’ kids are more comfortable speaking in English, and are struggling with Arabic.

POP! That’s the sound of my bubble bursting.

They highly recommended two methods of teaching Arabic. The first was immersing the child in an Arabic speaking culture. Fortunately, we plan on visiting Jordan soon. Second, they recommend putting on Arabic cartoons on TV. Bear in mind though; The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends putting off TV exposure till after the child’s second birthday.

I remember watching a talk on about the language development in children. The video showed an experiment done on six month-old Taiwanese and American babies learning English and Mandarin, respectively. The results showed that the babies who were tutored a foreign language by a human picked up far more than babies taught by a TV or a radio language-teaching program.

In this same video, Patricia Kuhl, a Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, said that there were two peaks when children pick up language signals. The first peak, surprisingly, is when a baby is only two months-old. The second, is when a child is seven-years-old.

That had a great impact on me as a Mom, who is raising a bilingual child. If I had been too tired changing diapers and coping with being a first-time-Mom 17 months ago, I thought, I still have the next five and a half years to prepare for her second language developmental peak.

When I visited my family in the Middle East last summer, I made sure to buy Aisha books and toys in Arabic. Then later, my family sent me Arabic flash cards, Arabic alphabet refrigerator magnets, and more Arabic books. Even though I read to Aisha the English children’s books in Arabic, I want her eyes to get familiarized with the Arabic calligraphy.

So, I set up a board—hanging on her closet door—with a weekly Arabic letter. Right now we are on the letter “Ra”. Next to the letter is a picture of a pomegranate, a butterfly, and three squares. All three have the equivalent letter R (“Romman”, “Farashah”, and “Moraba’”).

When it’s time for our Arabic lesson, Aisha drags her small violet chair and sits in front of the board. She almost never pronounces the letters correctly. And when I take out her learning notebook to write the letter of the week, her scribbles extend to her clothes and floor. That’s why you’ll often find me with a wet rag scrubbing something after our lesson.

But still, I feel that that’s not enough. Especially, after watching a video of my friend’s daughter in California—who by the way is only a few days younger than Aisha—clearly pronouncing the English alphabet. I felt like a lousy Mom.

More needs to be done. Not only with teaching Aisha the colloquial Arabic, but with classical Arabic as well. In some ways, teaching classical Arabic is like introducing a third language. After watching this alarming video (below), I decided to speak to Aisha in Classical Arabic more often. I try to practice with her on a daily basis. When I do, she often stares at me with a giant question mark on top of her head. But I am not giving up.

The video says that studies have shown that three year-old English speaking children know an average of 16,000 words. Meanwhile, kids speaking colloquial Arabic—as opposed to the rich classical Arabic—only know 3,000 words.

I almost fell out of my chair when I heard those numbers. I also turned into a high pitched classical Arabic cartoon character with my Aisha.

If I want Aisha to be accomplished in both languages, I must dedicate more learning time every day. Currently, she knows more than 10 words. So far, she is bilingual in one word only.

“NO!” (La’).

It’s a start.

Raising an Arab Child to Become Bilingual in the West

Arabic alphabet picture image

Photo by Janan Zaitoun

Raising an Arab child living in the West to become bilingual can cause constant rewiring to the brain for both children and parents. The child is always processing two languages: Arabic and English. Meanwhile, the parent is continuously trying to find new methods to make Arabic interesting.

Let’s face it, Arab kids brought up in the West are speaking English at home, even when their parents have been talking to them Arabic all their lives. Parents and educators I spoke to from the Boston Muslim community all share the same concern. They are worried about their family’s grasp to the main bridge of understanding the Holy Quran—the Arabic language.

Amal Noor, an Esthetician, is mother to two girls and one boy. Since they were young, Noor spoke to her children in Arabic only. Now, her oldest is 13 years old. All three kids prefer speaking in English. Noor is frustrated.

“I thought speaking to them only in Arabic since they were very young would be enough,” said Noor. “It’s not. It’s about making them interested in the language.”

When Noor teaches her kids Arabic, they raise tough questions. Such questions are: “Why do we have to learn Arabic grammar?” and “Why do we have to learn Arabic poetry?”.

Noor admits that there were times when she told herself to lower her expectations. But she quickly followed that remark with remembering converts, such as Imam Suhaib Webb and Imam Hamza Yusuf, who embraced Islam in adulthood and went on to become fluent in Arabic.

“They [children] ARE capable of it. Why can’t they do it?” asked Noor rhetorically.

Amira Ramadan, an Arabic and Quran teacher at the Islamic weekend school in Sharon, Massachusetts, said that there is a problem with the approach parents take with teaching their children Arabic. They teach them based on what they think is right, not based on a scientific method.

“Mothers come up to me and say ‘you should write the Arabic word in English letters next to it’,” said Ramadan. “But that’s not right! That’s not the way to teach a foreign language.”

Ramadan emphasized that when teaching any foreign language, that language should be used 90% of the time, at least. Students may complain that they are not learning anything in the beginning, but if the teacher sticks to it there will be results, said Ramadan. The problem is: We want results right now.

Sometimes parents complain that their child does not understand what he is reading in Arabic. Ramadan’s reply to that is: Learning a foreign language needs focusing on one part at a time, and having lots of patience.

“In teaching, there is one thing called reading, another thing is writing, and another thing is understanding. So when they [students] read, they don’t have to understand [right] now. ” said Ramadan.

Language emersion is the most favorable teaching method. Ramadan mentions how one of her students tries harder to learn Arabic, because over the summer she visited her extended family in an Arabic speaking country. Now, she communicates with her cousin overseas on a regular basis in Arabic.

Both Noor and Ramadan agreed on the importance of teaching Muslim children Arabic. They summed it up in four words.

“To teach them Quran,” they said.

Muslims recite verses from the Quran during their five daily prayers, and strive to read the entire book at least once a year during the fasting month of Ramadan. That is the bare minimum for Muslims’ reference to their Holy Book.

Reciting the Quran is, also, a big part of Muslims’ daily activities. To mention a few examples: Muslims recite verses of the Quran when they wake up, and before they go to sleep. Parents recite verses on their children to protect them from evil, and caretakers recite verses on sick patience to speed their recovery. Muslims recite verses before they take a test, and when they first hop on any means of transportation.

The concerns of immigrant parents raising bilingual children in the United States are understandable. But the importance of learning the Arabic language has a larger impact not just on the Arabs living in the West. For Muslims of all nationalities, learning the language of the Quran is learning the Islamic traditions and way of life.

The Growing Trend of Islamic Weekend Schools in Massachusetts, USA

Are You a Hijabby or a Hijatty?


Faten Ramadan is the founder and designer of Fetoun—the latest no-pin headscarf for Muslim women. She designed a revolutionary head piece, which includes 27 parts as opposed to the one-piece under scarf sold in the Islamic fashion market. Ramadan calls her product a Hijat with a T as opposed to the common Hijab with a B. While a one-piece under scarf is sold for $3, Fetoun’s no-pin Hijat is sold for a minimum of $38. Is the creativity behind the no-pin Hijat worth the switch from the simple under scarf?

Only recently has Islamic fashion taken a sharp turn to modern styles, and yet maintaining its modest signature. Ramadan spent the last three years creating her Hijats. In 2000, Shukr, a new Islamic fashion brand was created. It focuses on designing conservative full length dresses for young women with a contemporary look. Silk Route, another Islamic designer brand, was established in 2006. Before the two latter rival brands, Islamic fashion was “grandmotherly-like”, as Tabassum Sedqui, Shukr’s designer, describes it. Creativity and modesty are finally walking hand in hand, and that’s how it should be.

“I am selling comfort,” said Ramadan standing behind her booth in a bazaar during the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) regional convention in Connecticut on 22 March 2014. “95% of the women who try it [Hijat] end up buying it.”

Ramadan emphasizes the features which make her Hijat unique: no-pins are required to wrap the headscarf, its comfort lays in its light weight on the head, and it is a total makeover to the common headscarf.

“I love my Hijat. I bought the FH853. My hair is very hard to tuck into under-scarves, “ said a review on by Amy R. “But since the 853 is open on top, I easily pulled it down around my neck and then pulled it back up, holding up my hair. It felt so much better than wearing my hair in a ponytail or bun.”

When I visited Ramadan’s booth during ICNA’s regional convention, she had me step into a tent she set us as a changing room. She had three chairs and three mirrors hanging in the ventilated khaki tent. She asked me to take my headscarf off and undo my bun. She then took three head measurements. First, she took the measurement of my head circumference, second, she extended the measuring tape from my right ear to the left, and third, she took the measurement of my back profile to measure the amount of hair I have.


Faten Ramadan, Founder of Fetoun. Photo by Janan Zaitoun.

Ramadan stepped out and came back a few moments later with a dark blue Hijat. She put it on my head and asked me how it felt. I usually need to use a pin to adjust the size of the under-scarf I wear, but the Hijat she put on felt like it was custom made for my head. After that, she gave me a tutorial on different ways to wrap a colorful shawl around the Hijat, by simply pushing the piece of fabric twice through a sewed in loop and securing it with an attached clip. When she was done, I hardly felt like I had anything on my head, and my hair was free from a tight ponytail or bun.

The only concern I had was its cost. Thirty eight dollars is certainly not within my budget. I’m used to buying an under scarf for three dollars. I will at least need four different colored Hijats to go with all my shawls. That’s $140 more than if I were to buy four regular under scarves.

“The only way to drop the price on all styles permanently is to manufacture it in low cost (slave) labor countries,” said Ramadan.  But that is against her principles. Selling it in large volumes is another way to reduce consumer prices, Ramadan suggests. Let’s not forget, sponsoring Ramadan’s initiative to revolutionize the headscarf will not only help make Hijats more affordable, but will also encourage Ramadan to continue finding cheaper innovative ways to design her product.

Put price tags on the side, the Islamic fashion market is in need for more daring designers to take up the challenge of envisioning creativity within modesty. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, encourages Muslims to take care of their outer appearance as well as their inner selves. As a Muslim woman living in America, I am constantly playing the role of an ambassador for Islam. Looking the part is as important as playing it. Leaving a beautiful impression through a fashionable and respectable wardrobe is a vital first step to diminishing the false stereotypes the media has spread about Islam.



NuDay Syria


Nadia Alawa, founder of NuDay Syria. Photo by Janan Zaitoun

Danish Syrian, Nadia Alawa, is founder of NuDay Syria–a non-profit organization which helps alleviate the humanitarian suffering that has been taking place in Syria since March 2011.

In this slideshow, Alawa explains what NuDay Syria does, and promotes the products it was selling at the Islamic Circle of North America’s regional convention in Hartford, Connecticut on the 22 March 2014.

NuDay Syria Slideshow

Islamic Circle of North America’s Regional Convention


Imam Yusuf Estes giving his lecture called: The Prophet – His Message for Our Time, during the Islamic Circle of North America regional convention, Connecticut Convention Center, Hartford, Connecticut, March 22, 2014. Estes converted from Christianity to Islam in 1991. He was a Muslim Chaplain for the United States Bureau of Prisons through the 1990s. Photo by Janan Zaitoun.

On 22-23 March 2014, The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) held a two-day regional convention at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, Connecticut. The event throughout the day included: main sessions, parallel workshops, youth sessions, a sisters-only workshop, and a bazaar. The theme of the convention was “Prophet Muhammad: Mercy to Mankind”.

The previous eight annual national ICNA conventions were all held in Hartford, CT. This year, the 39th annual convention will take place in Baltimore, Maryland on Memorial Day weekend in May, 2014. Muslims from various New England states approached the ICNA board members and asked that a regional convention be held nearer to them in March.

“Last year, we were 18,000 at the [national] convention,” said Naeem Baig, president of ICNA. “Today [at the regional convention], we will have 2,500 to 3000 [attendees]”.

ICNA was established in 1968. The organization initially focused on educating its members about Islam and creating a supportive Muslim community in America. Along with its headquarters in Jamaica, Queens, New York, ICNA has 30 physical offices around the U.S.

In 1978, ICNA—Sisters Wing was established—an organization providing an environment in which Muslim women in America work together on Islamic projects. The latter organization then created Muslim Children of North America (MCNA)—an organization for children ages 5-15.

Upon entering the convention center, one could see registration booths that had been set up  in the lobby for the attendees. On another side of the lobby, Islamic music could be heard. Tables had been set up near the source of the lively music. A volunteer, Aiza Zia from Pakistan and a student at Simmons College,  stood in front of the table that said “Helping Hands for Relief and Development (HHRD)”. She was handing out brochures for HHRD, a global humanitarian relief and development organization responding to human suffering in emergency and disaster situations around the world.

Three of four signs segregating attendees based on gender at ICNA regional convention, Connecticut Convention Center, Hartford, Connecticut. Photo by Janan Zaitoun.

Three of four signs segregating attendees based on gender at ICNA regional convention, Connecticut Convention Center, Hartford, CT, March 22, 2014. There were close to 3,000 attendees in the regional conference. Photo by Janan Zaitoun.

When the attendees entered the main hall, four signs directed them where to go. The first two said “Sisters”, while the other two said “Brothers”. A long blue curtain in the middle segregated the two genders.

“The best day is the day you learn something that will help you get closer to Allah,” said Imam Yusuf Estes, a Texan and former preacher of Christianity, before stepping onto the stage in the main hall to give his talk called: The Prophet – His Message for Our Time. He explained: “In this conference, I am looking for that.”

Upstairs there were five other parallel workshops. Each room had three speakers and one main topic.

“The prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—was even merciful to those who opposed him,” said Palestinian American Muhammad Baajor  in room 24 during his talk about Prophet Muhammad’s manners and dealings. “After he had been stoned by the people of Ta’ef, he made the famous prayer [for them to accept Islam]”.

During the first hour in room 25, the talk was about Muhammad: Dignified by the Divine, while in room 26 the talk covered Muhammad as a Political Activist. After prayer at 1:15 pm, the two other parallel sessions began. In room 27, a sister-only workshop dealt with issues Muslim women face in America. While in rooms 11,12, and 13 a Qur’anic competition took place.

Sister Suzy Ismail giving her talk, Muslim Entrepreneurs in America, during a parallel workshop in room 25 at ICNA's regional convention, Connecticut Convention Center, Hartford, CT. Photo by Janan Zaitoun.

Sister Suzy Ismail, left, giving her talk “Muslim Entrepreneurs in America” during a parallel workshop in room 25 at ICNA’s regional convention, Connecticut Convention Center, Hartford, CT, March 22, 2014. Ismail is the author of several books such as “9 to 5″ , “When Muslim Marriage Fails” , “The BFF Sisters” and other works. She is a visiting professor in the communication department at DeVry University and is the curriculum developer and instructor at the center for Muslim Life. Photo by Janan Zaitoun.

Nadia Al-Jam, a Syrian living in Massachusetts, attended the conference with her husband. Al-Jam was in favor of the short 15-20 minute talks and the Q & A segment at the end given in the workshops. However, she criticized the absence of the Q & A segment at the end of the lectures given in the main hall.

For families, a bazaar and inflatable slides for children were set up. There were close to one hundred tables, each displaying cultural products from Muslim countries. Some sold raw honey, ethnic jewelry, clothing and colorful headscarves. Vendors  explained to passers-by why their product was more unique.

Faten Ramadan, who was born in Lebanon but has been living in the U.S. for 39 years, advertised her first-of-its-kind no-pin headscarf “Fetoun”.

“It took me a year and a half to create this,” said Ramadan. “I sewed 27 pieces in this headscarf to get the comfort and design I wanted.”

 Faten Ramadan selling her no-pin headscarf during the Bazar at ICNA's regional  Convention, Connecticut Convention Center, Hartford, CT. Photo by Janan Zaitoun

Faten Ramadan selling her no-pin headscarf, Fetoun, during the bazaar at ICNA’s regional convention, Connecticut Convention Center, Hartford, CT. Fetoun was established on April 15, 2009. Photo by Janan Zaitoun

Unlike all the other tables that were selling headscarves, Ramadan invited women to step into  a ventilated changing-room tent, complete with chairs and mirrors. She had them remove their headscarves and then took different measurements of their heads. By referring to a chart she has been developing over the past three years,  she then chose the correct sized headscarf for each woman.

At the conference, diverse ethnicities were obvious and several spoken languages were heard.

Toward the end of the first night, while standing behind the podium in the main hall, Baig said: “During last year’s national convention, we conducted a survey. We found out that there were 80 different ethnicities attending, and 44 different languages spoken.”

Deema Hajjawi, Host of Chef Wanted on Abu Dhabi TV



Courtesy of Deema Hajjawi

“Not everyone gets to see me like this,” said Deema Hajjawi in Arabic when her video camera on Skype turned on. She was wiping off her makeup. “But it’s okay. I’ve already warmed up to you,” she said after only two minutes of talking to me for the first time. Her humble and friendly nature during my interview with her was clear from the beginning.

Hajjawi, 36, is a well-known Jordanian Cooking Specialist in the Arab world. She is host and judge of Chef Wanted, similar to Food Network’s Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell. The show is currently being aired on Abu Dhabi TV. The show was shot in 5 star hotel restaurants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In each episode, two contestants compete to impress a hotel restaurant chef. The winner has the opportunity to work at the restaurant with the chef.

In 2000, Hajjawi’s first TV appearance was on Dubai TV hosting a show called Cinema, Cinema. Later in 2003, Hajjawi appeared in a cooking show on Jordan TV as a host with other chefs. But in 2012, Hajjawi appeared on Roya TV, a Jordanian satellite channel, as the main cook. She cooks during the morning show’s cooking segment, three times a week.

Hajjawi is author of two cooking books: Tasty Temptations, 2009, and The Secret Ingredient, 2012. Both books consist of Arabian recipes in English. The books target English speaking Arabs, and foreigners living in Arab countries. She is currently working on her third book, this time in Arabic. It is due for publication in June 2014. Her books are sold online at:

Born and raised in Jordan, Hajjawi was raised by Palestinian parents from Nablus. Both her parents worked in Jordan TV. Her father, Bassam Hajjawi, a TV producer, was one of Dubai TV’s founders.

As a child, Hajjawi went to The Ahliyyah for Girls high school in Jordan. When she was 17 years old, Hajjawi’s parents sent her to stay with her aunt so she could attend Lucie Clayton finishing school in London. In 2000, Hajjawi graduated from Al-Ahliyya Amman University in Jordan. She majored in English literature.

Hajjawi met her husband through a friend and married Hassan Hamdan in 2000. Today, they have four daughters. Hajjawi encourages her daughters Nour, 12, Nadia, 10, Aya, 8, to be in the kitchen with her. Her youngest, Zain,is four years old.

“The first time I ever made anything was when I was in 6th grade,” said Hajjawi. “I made French toast.”

In 2000, the same year Hajjawi got married, Hajjawi’s husband and brother established a business, Flavours Catering, which was the first door to Hajjawi’s cooking career. She helped with the family business, and her passion for food blossomed. That same year, she published her first cooking book.

“We worked on the first book as a joke,” said Hajjawi switching between Arabic and English. “We never imagined that it would be a success. We only printed limited copies.”

Hajjawi’s husband took pictures of her dishes with his camera, and then they ate whatever she made afterwards. Her husband, a graphic designer, designed her first book. The first book’s success pushed Hajjawi to work on a second one.


Courtesy of Deema Hajjawi

“My favorite American chef is Martha Stewart,” said Hajjawi. “She’s consistent. I also like Barefoot Contessa’s Ina Garten, and Tyler Florence.”

In her light brown kitchen, Hajjawi enjoys combining recipes together and creating new dishes to add to her upcoming book, or to remake on TV. In one episode on Roya TV’s morning show Donya ya Donya, Hajjawi was showing the viewers how to make an Arabic sweet called Layali Lebnan, Lebanese Nights. She had introduced a new method of making it; adding eggs to thicken the creamy texture made of semolina and milk. More than one viewer called in to tell Hajjawi that they had never tried her way. They only added starch to thicken the texture. Hajjawi stressed the importance of adding warm milk to the eggs before adding it to the hot mixture.  “A method called tampering,” she said.

“Try my way, and you’ll be glad you did,” she said to one of the callers.

During the fasting month of Ramadan, 2012, Mobile Channels Company (MCC Arabia) created an application for smart devices: “Ramadan is More Delicious with Deema Hajjawi”. Every day, subscribers received a recipe from Hajjawi for breaking their fast. In two weeks, there were 25,000 downloads of the application.

Last year, Hajjawi established Deema’s Cooking Club at her parents’ house in Jordan. She meets with her students once a week for three hours. In each class, they make entrées, main courses, appetizers, and sweets from different countries.

Towards the end of our Skype interview, I asked Hajjawi what she would serve if she had the opportunity to open her own restaurant at Harvard Square.

“Palestinian and Jordanian food, “said Hajjawi.  “I’ll make them Mskhan (chicken with onions on stone oven bread), Magloobeh (Rice with chicken and cauliflower or eggplant), and Mansaf—the national dish of Jordan (yellow rice with lamb in a yogurt based broth).”



* To sign up with Deema’s Cooking Club in Um Othayna, contact Hajjawi via her e-mail:

* Deema Hajjawi’s official page on Facebook:

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