Mom Between Cultures: Arab-Islamic & American

by Janan Zaitoun

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.

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