Mom Between Cultures: Arab-Islamic & American

by Janan Zaitoun

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 squeezed 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 Ted.com 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.

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