I have some reassuring things to say.
I remember when my dd was 4. At that time, everything that I read was adamant that rigidly sticking to OPOL (One person one language) is the only way to raise your child to become bilingual, and that even the slightest deviation would doom my child to speaking only English for the rest of her life. When my child was that little, it seemed like there were so many decisions that were so important that in retrospect aren't. At such a young age, I thought that if I didn't get this bilingual stuff exactly correct right at four years of age, then my daughter's destiny for the rest of her life would be irrevocably damaged.
Now my situation was a little bit challenging than yours. I speak very limited Mandarin Chinese, and my husband none at all. Our primary language is English. When my daughter was 4 years old, I asked my mother (who lived next door) to only speak Chinese to my daughter. For reasons that are more complicated than you want to know, my mother and I ended up in such a conflict that she ended up refusing for several years.
So for three years, all my daughter had was me with my limited grasp of the Chinese language, speaking to her with Chinese sentences whenever I could manage it, and English when I couldn't. My thought was that if I could at least make sure that she could develop the ear of the tone inflections of Chinese speech, then my daughter would be able to pick things up quickly when she was just a little bit older.
And indeed, she has. She is now 9 years old, but starting at 7 years old, she finally became interested in speaking Chinese. And she is very good, better in many respects than many children who speak Chinese at home.
So I have some thoughts in retrospect.
1. Relax. If you do anything wrong (if there is indeed a wrong way to do it), will be easy to fix because children will learn fast.
2. Do as much in Arabic as you can, but bend just a TINY little bit so that it does not become a power struggle. In the case of your child, I think I would make it a game. Perhaps say that I will be willing to say up to 3 (you pick the number) sentences in English in one day, but your child gets to pick which sentences. Perhaps it is just a phase that your child will lose interest after a few days. But I wouldn't allow it to go down the slippery slope. If my child were insisting on more and more English, I think I would try something else. Maybe say the response in Arabic, and followed by saying it in English. Or something different, and after a couple days seeing if it will steer back to just Arabic.
3. I have a friend that is my age, and we are both second generation Chinese. She is very good with speaking Chinese, and I am better with writing. She attributes this due to the fact that her family lived in China during the summer when she was 9 years old. That's just one summer, and yet it cemented things for her. My daughter has friends in her Chinese school class that speak Chinese at home, but the parents feel that the number one thing that helps their child be successfully bilingual is extended trips (five weeks or the summer) back to their home country to visit family. One parent even enrolled her preschoolers in regular preschool while she was there. This is a long-shot, but as a professor, perhaps you can be on the look out for exchange teaching opportunities to an Arabic-speaking country, not right now but maybe in a future year in the distance. At my university, there are lots of opportunities to teach abroad for the summer or for a semester. (This is not an option for me, so I have a few other suggestions.)
4. I would suggest cultivating playmates whose families speak Arabic in the home. Once my child entered kindergarten, and she found that some of her friends spoke Chinese, she was much more interested in speaking Chinese. Peer pressure really worked to my advantage.
5. I once met a mother who got her children to be bilingual in Spanish and I asked her for suggestions. Her suggestion was excellent. She said that she formed a playgroup of other Spanish-speaking families and together they pooled their money and hired a teacher to essentially play with their children. So the teacher brought playdough, formed a little playdough house, and taught the children the words "inside" and "outside" in Spanish. It doesn't work to have the mother do this. My daughter's friend's mother tried to teach her two daughters Chinese herself and they rebelled. So the mother gave up in frustration and asked me to sign up my daughter for Chinese school with her daughters. So we essentially did the same thing. The teacher they found was amazing. She taught the class like you would want a Chinese nursery school to be, changing up fun activities every 10 minutes. The children never realized that they were learning, and just ate it all up. They thought they were playing Chinese bingo, singing songs, writing with finger paints, etc. You don't necessarily need a credentialed teacher. The Spanish teacher was apparently a high school teacher in her home country, but my daughter's Chinese school teacher was simply a very creative and innovative person who loves children. She didn't even have children!
6. In the three years before my daughter was able to have this wonderful Chinese teacher, I tried to hire Chinese students (at my university) to babysit for me occasionally for a couple hours each week. My hope was that my daughter would speak Chinese with the babysitter. Unfortunately, my daughter figured out that if she kept her mouth shut, the Chinese students would assume that she didn't understand any Chinese and end up speaking with my daughter in English. So for me, that was a waste of money. But maybe you would have better luck.
Now, some words of reassurance.
What made me less tense about this OPOL thing was an interview that I heard on NPR about a myth-busting book written by an author (Naomi Steiner) who seems to have impeccable credentials. She comes right out and says that OPOL is the best way, but unlike other people, she doesn't just leave it at that. She says that if OPOL is not possible, then there are variations that can be effective. Also, I think one of the myths that she busted was that you have to have your child bilingual by the age of 4, or it's all over. At the time, I was really worried about it, but now that my daughter is the ripe age of 9, I see that my daughter very easily learns Chinese. And honestly, in retrospect, I have many friends who immigrated to the US as preteens and teens and they picked up English just fine.
You may find her book reassuring, especially starting on page 58. Here is an excerpt.
You will definitely find page 172-173 of this excerpt reassuring:
These are her credentials. I don't think they can get any better than this:
In summary, I think that if you try to get as many Arabic inputs into your child as you can, being very careful not to spiral into more and more English, and make adjustments that your intuition thinks might work, you will be fine. You are not running a sprint, you are running a marathon. If you keep at it, with the occasional break and then ramping back up that your intuition sees is necessary, then in ten or twenty years you will find that it all comes back to your child.
Edited by emilysmama - 5/17/13 at 2:03pm