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Bilingual Toddler, Cohabitating Monolingual Grandmother, Handwringing Mother

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 

We live in the US. My husband is Arab, I speak our Arabic dialect pretty well (not fluently), and our almost 2 year old is "bilingual" with Arabic as her dominant language and English as the less dominant language. I've spoken 90% (or more) Arabic to her since she was a few months old. She sometimes speaks English when we are with English speakers or after she is in a group of kids speaking English, and she understands English well. She has a pretty big Arabic vocabulary and likes to talk.


My non-Arabic speaking mother is coming to live with us for most of each year. I am happy about this in some ways, but I feel really sad that my daughter will be getting so much English reinforcement so early and at home. I was hoping to avoid that until she starts preschool or kindergarten in a couple of years. I have heard so much about kids who, even if they live in minority language communities in the US with two parents speaking the minority language, end up not speaking the minority language much after they start school. Knowing that this is a big possibility for us, we really wanted to give her the best minority language start we could. (We also do other things to make Arabic natural for her and give me chances to improve my Arabic, but since this post isn't about that I won't describe those things.)


I guess there's no magic way to "protect" my daughter's Arabic once my mom is here. I want to keep speaking to my daughter in Arabic, and I will. My husband requires our daughter to speak Arabic to him, and he goes out of his way to spend plenty of time with her. I'm aware that it makes my mom uncomfortable to not know what we're saying, so I may have to translate sometimes for her benefit. My mom also tends to be spooked by the fact that she cannot understand my daughter. (I've been trying to help my daughter improve at switching between languages and being aware of which one she is speaking. I guess having my mom around will make it clear, since Arabic will result in my mom being confused and English will not!) My mom theoretically supports our mission, but she seems to believe deep down that if she doesn't speak English as her first language she will suffer in school, so she is always going out of her way to "teach" English words to my daughter. My own interaction style with my daughter is not about language drills or any kind of drills--we expect her to pick up knowledge and she does on her own, just through living and asking questions and trying things out.


I guess to a large extent this is "out of my hands" unless I want to kick my mother out, or send my daughter away to Arabic daycare or the Arab world! But I was wondering how others had dealt with similar situations. Really, I'm needing help having a relaxed and accepting attitude, since my mom moving in is not completely easy for any of us, and if I concentrate on language issues, it will only sow discord. So I would appreciate practical ideas for coping with monolingual housemates/relatives as well as encouragement that this doesn't have to be the end of my daughter speaking Arabic.


Edited for clarity.

Edited by sky_and_lavender - 8/5/11 at 12:52pm
post #2 of 10

as i side note for good news, they have shown that young children that actively speak two language, usually do not have any issue sorting them out and also have clear brain development bonuses for their trouble, apparently sorting two languages is great for the brain! i wish i could introduce another native toungue to our babes!


im sure it will work out fine as long as everyone respects eachother

post #3 of 10

Hey, this is only a year in your daughter's life.  It's nice to start a child out with a strong base in the minority language (which you have done) but she is going to be living with you for another 16 years (give or take) and over that time you will have many opportunities to make choices that support her acquisition of Arabic.


Your DD's English will no doubt improve a lot while your mother is living with you, but if she continues to use Arabic exclusively with your DH there is no reason the English should come at the cost of her Arabic.  She isn't going to get less exposure to Arabic, she will just get more exposure to English.  I don't think your mom's efforts to 'teach' her English (though totally unnecessary) will have any kind of negative impact on her Arabic.  I would not make an issue over that where there doesn't need to be one.


It sounds like you have a good handle on what you need to do to support her Arabic, I think you should just keep doing what you are doing.  The addition of outside sources like a playgroup or whatever else you can find is also a great idea, but it would be a good idea regardless of your mother's presence or not.


FWIW our 2/yo DD is in full-time (6-7 hours) English-language Montessori and her best language is still DH's language (which is totally weird and won't last but is kind of cool for now anyway). 

post #4 of 10

Because you live in the US your daughter will speak english. You will not need to put any effort in...especially when it comes to social interactions, school, friends, tv, internet, and so on and so on. I speak to my children ONLY in spanish. my husband speaks to them in spanglish ^_^ and my children are bilingual. When we are out in the world, my son prefers english. when at home he prefers spanish.


At this age, they are learning there are two words for everything. So it will come around. And faster than anyone can anticipate. Also, if your mother is serious about teaching English let her. You don't have to. Besides, this will make English a special language with Grandma...a game...a puzzle...


Let your mother know:

Advantages of children learning another language are primarily cognitive and overall language development:

  • Learning another language enhances problem solving abilities

  • Bilingual children can perform “certain cognitive tasks more accurately”

  • Knowing more than one word for a concept or object leads to a complex understanding of the word.

  • Metalinguistic Knowledge: Knowing another language can lead to a better understanding of the English language (by understanding language roots of words...for example: Arbol (Tree) arbor, Arboretum, arabesque, arboreal, arboraceous, etc) This can help reading and even help further down the road such as SAT testing. (I imagine this is also the case when it comes to two alphabets...fyi most words that start with A in spanish have an arabic root...as do many medical terms in english...I think Mater is one of them)

  • A study done in 2005 showed that children with bilingualism had a higher level of literacy. (Bialystok E, Luk G, Kwan E (2005). "Bilingualism, Biliteracy, and Learning to Read: Interactions Among Languages and Writing Systems". Scientific Studies of Reading)

When my mother in law comes to visit, I let them sort it out. Frankly, there is very little this age that can't be pointed to or figured out in due time. From time to time there are mix ups but this will help both grandmother and grandchild learn about each others world...and language.

When my mother in law is there I often say everything twice or just say what is crucial in English and Spanish. I will not speak to my children in english no matter what. I think it will be awkward for about a couple of weeks while everyone finds their rhythm...but you will find your way. 

Oh and my mother in law told me I couldn't teach my children spanish (but italian or french would be fine) because they would be illiterate and would never get into college. It was a slap in the face that I took in stride and now my bilingual children are able to fish out the meaning of words in other languages as well.


A child this small is capable of learning more than two languages and thrive. She won't lose her Arabic she won't have a hard time learning English (with your 10%, you would be surprised how much she knows already). In fact, you could throw in another language for fun and it will be just fine.

post #5 of 10

My daughter (26 months old) is in a similar situation (dominant language is currently Arabic), except she will start pre-school in the fall, so I am panicking about her losing the desire to speak Arabic.  In your post you said "(We also do other things to make Arabic natural for her and give me chances to improve my Arabic, but since this post isn't about that I won't describe those things)."  Since I am always looking for ways to do that, especially since we have a very small Arabic community around us, would you mind describing those things for me.


Thanks so much!


post #6 of 10
Thread Starter 
Well, we're a month or so into the experiment. My daughter has started to speak English as her default with everyone other than my husband and me. It has been a hard adjustment for my husband and me. But I think there are some positives to my daughter speaking as well as just understanding English. After all, she lives in an English majority city, and she needs to communicate with many people.

I am concerned, though, about how to make sure that she still gets plenty of Arabic time with me when just my mom, my daughter and my mother are in the house. My mom tends to sort of commandeer conversations or situations. For example, just right now, my daughter was playing with her doll and talking to me (in Arabic) about what she was doing. We were interacting fine. My mom was reading a book, and looked up from the book and commented on the situation in English. My daughter then went over to my mother and started playing with my mom in English. They were both happy with this. Then my mom took a magazine and started describing its pictures in English. These are all not bad things to be doing in general, and I don't want to be overly critical. But what happened is that my mom took Shadia away from her interaction with me.

If it weren't for the language thing, I don't think I'd mind much. I'm not sure if it's appropriate to ask her not to do that, or if I should just take over the take over. It would be okay if it was once in a while, but my mother likes to be involved in every single interaction (including between my husband and me, but that's another story!). The only way I can avoid this is to leave the house or go to a different room, things that I do often do. But I wonder if it's reasonable to come up with some sort of guidelines for her and us in regards to protecting my daughter's minority language. My mother is somewhat amenable to my requests in this regard, but I'm just not sure what to request without being overly rigid or demanding.

Any ideas?
post #7 of 10

You don't need to "protect" your child from the English. In fact, often it helps the other language. When my children learn a word in one language, they automatically want to learn the word in the other. You also don't want unreasonable rules in your household which could damage your relationship with your mom and her relationship with her granddaughter. This can become a control issue and you need to just step back. 


I don't have the advantage you do. I'm the only English speaker and my dh can't speak it, although he understands quite well. My children always reply to me in English and only English. It's really important that you always speak Arabic to your daughter in every. single. situation. Do NOT switch to English with your mom or in public or with English speakers. This is very important because she'll get the impression that she has to hide the Arabic or that it's okay to speak to you in English. 


Children and language learning tends to buck some logic. There IS logic but it's not apparent. This idea you have to "protect" the minority language is a common myth. What you need to do is not replace the Arabic with English. Every exchange between you, your husband and child must be in Arabic. The mere fact that English is under your roof is not a negative factor. I have three English speakers who have had French since the day they were born. In public, with French speakers, wherever, we speak English. We're not rude and my children have learned to negotiate their bilingual skills in these situations (something they wouldn't have learned if I had switched to French in public). I could write a book on the subject but I'll leave it for now. 


The other myth is that the languages have to be equal. They don't and this can really stress parents out. It's a non-issue. My kids speak three languages on three different levels. They have no problems communicating and interacting in French, English and German. Many thought we were crazy for putting our children in bilingual German but a family who successfully does four languages (yes, 4; mom's, dad's, community and school/family languages) urged me on. There are three different skills going on. Just because your child can skateboard, doesn't mean he can't learn to ice skate too. Sometimes skills can transfer over. An inline skater can learn ice skating perhaps easier than someone who doesn't have that background. Maybe someone practices their sport more in the winter or summer and then switches to another sport. Maybe they get rusty but it comes back... 


What is key is that one language doesn't "eat into" the other and that the child can speak one without dipping into or borrowing from the other. Like wearing inline skates in the snow. It doesn't work. That's what you'll be on the lookout for. Don't scold any English she uses with you. She might be "asking" what it is in Arabic from you. Keep your exchanges "pure". If your mother is reading to her, you can even later take the same book and talk about the story in Arabic. Ask her the vocabulary, like point to picture of a spinning wheel and see if she can name it. Encourage her to "match" what she's learning from your mother in English with the Arabic. 


I think that you might be concerned simply about the time component in her life. She's actually spending less time in Arabic and more in English with your mother present. This is a valid concern but honestly, for the short term, this will not be harmful. You have a very good bilingual situation with both parents using the minority language. My situation isn't as good as yours' and it works so think how much ahead of things you already are. You also have to be zen in the fact she'd learn English anyway and that her relationship with her grandmother is more important in the long term than how many vocabulary words she had in Arabic at X age. 


Just keep to Arabic all. the. time. and it will work. 

Edited by Eclipsepearl - 10/20/11 at 10:05am
post #8 of 10
Thread Starter 

Thanks, Eclipsepearl, for adding your thoughts and experience on this. I especially appreciate the last paragraph, which reminds me that our overall language situation is pretty good. I'm feeling less stressed about the overall situation now, with the passage of time and our own experience of our daughter continuing to embrace Arabic even as she is learning English. Thanks again.

post #9 of 10

I corrected some errors so it probably makes more sense now. The languages don't have to be equal, is what I meant to say. 


I'm actually quite jealous! At age 2, my son was silent and he hardly ever saw my mom. How that might have helped his English but there's no turning back. Listening to him today in three languages, it's so hard to believe how behind we were at your stage. 


Yet, those who have better language situations than ours' don't succeed as well as we have which shows how crucial a role attitude and consistency play.

post #10 of 10

I can empathize with you.  My situation was similar, perhaps even worse, so I am replying to you to encourage you with the benefit of hindsight.


When my dd was 2 years old, I thought that it was crucial to do everything just right to preserve the minority language.  (I felt for me, the stakes were very high because I have only a little bit of knowledge of Chinese, and my husband none at all, and I was determined to make my child bilingual in English and Chinese.) In my case, my mother was perfectly capable of speaking both Chinese and English, but she always reverted to English, even thought Chinese was her mother tongue a long time ago.  (It's rusty.)  When I would try to suggest what to do, like not speak any English, my mother would get all offended and end up not speaking to me for months at a time.  Nothing I could say, even the above things that the pp suggest that you share with your mother, did a bit of good.  My mother was bound and determined to do it her way or no way. 


I really hope that your mother isn't as stubborn as mine.  (And don't get me wrong, she's great, and she is a wonderful when she teaches my dd Chinese, but she didn't start doing it the way that I wanted until my dd was 7 years old.)


But I think if you can't figure out a solution with your mother, then you may have to just let go of that aspect, and work on what you can control.  It will still be fine. At two years old, yes perhaps Arabic daycare is a little extreme, although I would have considered something like that.  But you will win in the very long term.  For a long while, during ages 3, 4, 5, and 6 years old, I struggled mightily to try to keep the minority language in the wings. Always there, but not predominant.  My dd would answer back in English, never in Chinese.  My dd would pretend not to understand Chinese, even though she could understand it perfectly well, so that even Chinese speakers reverted to speaking English because they assumed that my dd didn't understand Chinese.  Then, at age 7, my dd's interest in speaking Chinese finally developed.  And all the elements are there, the intonation, the accent, that are the difficult part to develop.  Her vocabulary is not as strong as if she had grown up from infancy with two native Chinese speakers, but it's pretty good.  So my dd is learning pretty well in Chinese school.  The Chinese school teacher is a gem.  She is like what you would want a play-based nursery school to be.  (Yes, my dd is 8 years old, but what I mean is that she makes learning Chinese fun.)


This brings to mind what a person who raised her children to be bilingual told me when my dd was a baby.  She and a bunch of her friends hired a teacher from her native land to run weekly playdates in which the children would be immersed in the language.  The children would learn vocabulary by playing, by doing intentionally designed play activities.  For example, to demonstrate the word in and out, the teacher had the kids make little houses out of playdoh.  I am in a small city, so there was no such person who was able to do this during the time my dd was your child's age.  And I feel very lucky that my dd's Chinese school even found such a teacher earlier this year, even though she is already eight years old.


So when your child is, say 4 or 5 years old, if you can get together other mothers who speak Arabic (with say 4 or five children), perhaps you can take turns running playdates to teach the kids Arabic without the children realizing that they are learning.  That will do a great deal of good and more than offset your mothers effect.


It will be fine, I promise.

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