Changing family culture from majority to minority language - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 10 Old 01-25-2010, 01:36 AM - Thread Starter
 
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When I was pregnant, I posted about how to encourage minority language learning in my future child, and I got some amazing responses from people!

Now my baby is 5 months old. I have to report that our hopes of switching our emphasis to spoken Lebanese during pregnancy and beyond didn't work very well. (Rough pregnancy, rough pp time.) My husband's and my habitual language is English, and my lack of fluency in Lebanese really complicates things. To top it off, my husband even has a hard time remembering to speak to our daughter in Lebanese, despite real desire to do so!

The positive things are that she has spent 7 out of her 21 weeks of life surrounded by Lebanese people (her grandparents), but I feel an incredible urgency to improve our language situation.

Obviously I need to work a lot harder on improving my Lebanese. A lot of that is just that I need to speak it more. It just rarely occurs to me to communicate in Arabic with my husband. And when I do I inevitably have to mix some English in because my vocab isn't great.

Improving my language feels like an impossible task, especially now that I'm in school (very part-time). But it feels overwhelmingly important to me. As in, I would even delay my college graduation so I can take language courses or study on my own. Is that unreasonable? Is it crazy? Does anyone else feel this kind of urgency? After all, if our baby wants to learn the language eventually, she will. I have to admit I don't completely understand myself here.

Anyway, aside from fluency issues, have any of you changed your relationship's primary language from majority to minority language? Any tips or reflections on the experience? Thanks, wise parents!


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#2 of 10 Old 01-25-2010, 02:58 AM
 
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I posted on another language thread about what we do, but just wanted to say our situations are similar. My husband is the Arabic speaker and while he speaks to our son mostly in Arabic, he has to switch to English for me, so things like family dinner converations are almost all English.

We play a lot of Arabic music in our house, including a lot of children's songs my husband burned on a few CDs. For us, music is big. My son adores all music and that's a fast way to his brain and heart.

Lots of Arabic cartoons off Youtube and some other sites my husband found.

We talk to the grandparents weekly on webcam in Arabic.

I'm lucky in that there are several Muslim teachers at my son's preschool. They've taken him under their wings and speak Arabic to him every chance they get.

There are some Arabic classes around here, but they are MSA. We'll try them later, but right now I want to focus on DH's regional Arabic.

We NEED to get satellite so we can have some Arabic stations.

While my son doesn't say much in Arabic, it's becoming more apparent he knows a good deal of what my husband is saying. Is he truly bilingual? No. But I hope we are at least setting him up to have an easier time of it as he gets older.

ETA: We also have lots of Arabic books, including "First Thousand Words in Arabic," which DH says is mostly Lebanese. You might want to pick that up if you don't have it already. It's just tons of pics with the words underneath.
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#3 of 10 Old 01-25-2010, 05:42 AM
 
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Originally Posted by sky_and_lavender View Post
Improving my language feels like an impossible task, especially now that I'm in school (very part-time). But it feels overwhelmingly important to me. As in, I would even delay my college graduation so I can take language courses or study on my own. Is that unreasonable? Is it crazy? Does anyone else feel this kind of urgency? After all, if our baby wants to learn the language eventually, she will. I have to admit I don't completely understand myself here.
I think it's totally reasonable, because it's one of the best things you can do to ensure your dd picks up Lebanese.

OPOL makes sense to the child but I think it is really hard to have it work on an everyday level unless each parent at least *understands* the other parent's language. Otherwise group conversations are impossible.

My DH and I are trying to do OPOL but I can see it won't stick unless we can understand each other's languages. I am working hard to learn his in order to give our DD half a chance of picking it up at all. I doubt she'll learn much of mine since he's not likely to learn it (he's not 'good' with languages like I am). Right now even though I speak to her exclusively in Greek (DH does about 50:50 English and Hindi with her), most of the speech she hears is DH and I talking to each other in English, the majority language.

Me, DH, DD1 (5/2009) and DD2 (10/2011).
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#4 of 10 Old 01-25-2010, 06:15 AM
 
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Completely reasonable and very admirable. Hard, though . . .

DH and I have always spoken English together (my native language). However, like so many others, we've found OPOL to be less successful than we had hoped and had been led to believe by the literature. Our DS was relatively weak in spoken English. Despite the fact that I always spoke English to him, the majority language just took over.

Although we haven't changed our *relationship's* language (we still mostly speak in English, despite the fact that I'm fluent in DH's language now), we have changed the *family's* at home language. Now, if we're all together, we all speak English. No ifs, ands, or buts. It's been a tough change, because DH and DS are used to speaking Dutch together (back to the OPOL) and I've had to remind them both a lot that "When we're all together, we all speak English." but it's been *so* worth it. DS' English has really improved.

So, OP, I wouldn't necessarily try to speak Arabic to your DS all the time. My DH doesn't speak English to DS all the time. It's very very hard to not speak your mother tongue at all to your child! But could you focus on improving your arabic so that when the whole family is together (you, DH, DC) you all speak arabic together? Thus, the family language becomes arabic and you'll have your DH and, eventually, DS to help you with vocabulary.

Good luck and kudos to you for focusing on giving your DC such a great gift.
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#5 of 10 Old 01-26-2010, 07:06 AM
 
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Originally Posted by mambera View Post
I think it's totally reasonable, because it's one of the best things you can do to ensure your dd picks up Lebanese.

OPOL makes sense to the child but I think it is really hard to have it work on an everyday level unless each parent at least *understands* the other parent's language. Otherwise group conversations are impossible.

My DH and I are trying to do OPOL but I can see it won't stick unless we can understand each other's languages. I am working hard to learn his in order to give our DD half a chance of picking it up at all.
Not true!

All three of my kids are fluent in English. My dh can't speak it. Group conversations ARE possible because we can all speak dh's language. He just can't speak mine

He has never even tried to learn it but now that our oldest is 10, that makes a decade of his listening to me speak English to our children. About four years ago, he really started understanding us, to the point where he could interject into the conversation... in French but that doesn't matter. I will admit I jumped the first time I heard "...and how many times does she have to tell you to clean your room?!?"

Has it been difficult? awkward? No, surprisingly easy. Sure, once in awhile we have to fill him in but usually we switch to French when we're all together (although exchanges between myself and the kids is in English). The children figured out quickly which word to use with which parent while still in diapers.

I know a family whose children speak both parents' languages while they don't speak each others'.

While it's admirable that you're trying to learn Arabic, and by all means continue, I think you're putting too much emphasis on YOU learning it and not on your dh using it with your child. I know a couple who both speak an Asian language (the dad natively and the mom is fluent) and neither child can speak it because the dad is just plain lazy.

What the parents speak together has little or no impact on what the parents speak to the child. Sure, people will argue exposure but don't you remember when you were a kid and your parents starting talking politics? Did you sit around and listen?? I doubt it. Even in one language, children aren't necessarily in tune with both the level of the language and the topics.

The fact is that many children never learn the language that both parents speak. This happened more a century ago in America where immigrants were afraid that their children would have their accent or confuse their children. We now know this to be untrue. My own grandmother never spoke Russian, although both parents were from there.

So while what you're doing is good and will help, I would urge you to not pressure yourself. If you and your dh's relationship is in English, don't mess with it! Obviously, it works.

If he is good and consistent about speaking Arabic to your baby, then you will be amazed how much you will pick up just listening to them. This has certainly worked in our household and let me assure you that you are much more motivated than my dh is! Explain to him that even monolingual couples are in a way, bilingual. You don't use the same mode of speech with your adult spouse as you do your children. Couples like us are taking it one step further, so I contrast English "baby" talk with French "adult" talk.

Another prompt is to ask him, in a few years, does he really want to explain the birds and the bees in English? How about how a car engine works? I'm totally fluent in French. I spoke it before I moved here 14 years ago yet, I'm so happy to explain the sticky things in my native language to my kids. Also, it's such a pleasure having my kids come off the plane and talk to my parents as if we lived next door.

Yes, couples have been able to switch languages but it needs to have its time and place. I knew a Swedish-French couple who started in English, then she moved to Sweden and learned Swedish and then as his retirement project... he learned French. I saw them years later and they were speaking French together this time (having never lived in France). You sound like your plate is full. I'm just afraid that you're going to overload if you try to add one more project to this mix, a project that wont necessarily guarantee that your son will learn Arabic.

By all means, support and encourage the Arabic. Even if you never use Arabic directly with your child, you might be able to read stories to him, play games in it, etc. You will still follow what they are saying to each other and yes, you can have a very natural and normal conversation in two languages.

hth!
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#6 of 10 Old 01-27-2010, 09:11 AM
 
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We struggle with this. My husband is the native Spanish speaker. I can get by but am not fluent. I feel like I speak more Spanish with my son than my husband does. He just reverts to English despite reminding.

When he is with his parents he easily switches between English and Spanish (his parents don't really speak English) but with us he says he "thinks" in English so it is difficult for him to speak Spanish with us.

I do a lot of books, songs, movies etc in Spanish and hope that my son has a good enough basis that when he decides he wants to learn it will be easier. He currently is going through a phase where one day he will say "I hate Spanish" and one day he will ask what a million things are in Spanish and ask to watch movies in Spanish. He is 4 1/2.

I think he understands it pretty fluently, but sometimes he will say he doesn't. Hard to tell. My husband is trying to be more proactive, but most of the time it is me reminding him every five minutes to speak in Spanish.
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#7 of 10 Old 02-10-2010, 03:38 PM - Thread Starter
 
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Thank you each for your replies and for sharing your experiences with this! (Sorry it took me a while to respond. I think I was thinking about everything and didn't know what to say.)

What I get from the responses as a whole is that you can't really predict what will "work!" Everyone is different and every family is different.

I picked up a book on raising bi/multilingual children, and the author made a really great point that has helped me calm down yet dig into our language commitment: You cannot "make" your child become bilingual; you can only increase your child's meaningful exposure to the minority language. The child's interest and desire will, in the end, come from him or her. The environment only provides cues.

Now I feel much less stressed about "guaranteeing" that our wee one will learn to speak Lebanese, and more excited about all the possibilities for exposing her to the culture and language. I also am working to speak Lebanese more, to read in Arabic to our daughter, and to improve my vocabulary.

Like some of you who answered, we have books and media in Arabic. One thing I have done in the past several weeks is form an Arabic culture group for families in my area. We met with our first members the other day. It was a wonderful experience and I'm sure we can learn from and support one another in exploring Arab American identity, culture and Arabic language.


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#8 of 10 Old 02-10-2010, 04:08 PM
 
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I am the non-native Arabic speaker, dh is the native speaker. We do OPOL but when we are together as a family, I speak as much Arabic as possible.

I totally disagree that you cannot make a child be bilingual. If you are starting from now, you most certainly can but you have to be absolutely committed to the task. Honestly, I think if that if you have already had difficulty committing to speaking Arabic, if you allow yourself to believe that you cannot make them bilingual no matter what you do, it will only further feed your lack of commitment. I know I probably sound really draconian about this, but it really is a matter of how important it is for you to have children who are fully functioning bilingual. Most bilingual kids aren't fully functioning and literate in the other language. They speak "kitchen Arabic" (or whatever language) which means they can say things that pertain to daily home interactions, but nothing else. Of course that's better than nothing, but if you want to give them the advantage of fully functioning literate bilingualism, it requires a strong commitment. Keep in mind that it's not only a cultural and family thing but it can be an academic and career advantage in their adult lives.

Our kids are ONLY allowed to interact with their dad in Arabic. IME, knowing many bilingual people and children of immigrants, the most important factor is whether or not there is a strict rule about when/how the kids must speak the language. If they are not forced to speak it, IME, they will never learn to speak it. Most of my friends say "I understand Urdu/Arabic/etc. but I can't speak it."

In addition, my dh teaches them Arabic via curriculum as part of our homeschooling (although I know others who do it at home after school, but that requires really strong commitment). This is necessary to ensure that the children will be literate in the other language. I do know a few families that did this with their kids. My college roommate was my only Indo-Pak friend who could actually read Urdu because her parents sat her down with textbooks and children's books and poetry every weekend. They also had an "Urdu only" rule at home. On the flip side, I have an American friend in Syria whose kids went to Syrian schools. They had to enforce an "English only" rule at home for the same reasons.

We also make a strong effort to provide lots of media and we enforce that, for example, if they watch a movie in English they also have to watch some in Arabic. If you can get the same movie-- say, Finding Nemo in English, get it in Arabic too if you can since they will be able to understand more of the minority language one based on the context they already know from having watched the majority language version where they may understand more of what's going on. Most Disney movies and Japanese anime series are in Arabic and available for purchase online.

You can get satellite channels free to air (although we don't have any Lebanese channels--just as well since many of them play music videos that are inappropriate for children) and have a VCR or digital recorder ready to tape the kids's shows that come on at night-- typically after 10/11 PM-ish. It is a pain to stay up late, deal with the unpredictable schedules and catch the programs every night but it is reaaaaly worth it. I have gotten tens of episodes of American classics like Dragon Tales, Magic School Bus, etc., this way. In fact most popular PBS shows have been translated in Arabic but I (and others I know) have combed the earth (literally...including contacting PBS, CTW, etc. directly) and not found any way to purchase these programs so finding and taping them ends up the only way. Clifford, Bob the Builder, etc., they all have been broadcast in Arabic on the free-to-air channels, particularly on Al-Qatriyyah and Oman channels which tend to have the best children's programming.

The result of all this, since we live in the US, is that English is still their dominant language. But they can speak Arabic, read books in Arabic, and even though dh has been speaking exclusively fusHa with them (formal Arabic) they still pick up the dialect from watching TV shows (bab al-Hara in particular ) and from going to Syria. Historical programs like Bab al-Hara and the subsequent role-playing and costume obsession they spawned in our house have done wonders for emphasizing cultural pride and language awareness. (By the way, Lebanese Arabic is generally the same as Syrian and Palestinian dialects. It is collectively called "Levantine" Arabic.) If you can travel overseas at some point, I highly recommend stocking up on videos and books in Lebanon (or Syria....) where they are MUCH cheaper than in the US and there are more choices.

Anyway, must go now but hope that helps some.

ETA: Oh, I almost forgot there is "Toyor Al-Jannah" songs/videos on YouTube. Many are religious but there are also quite a few that are not-- like about getting dressed in the morning, vegetables and fruits, "whoever loves Lebanon" (LOL), the rabbit who didn't listen to his mom, going for a ride in the car, etc. You can get some by searching in English but you get more if you can type it in Arabic. HTH.
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#9 of 10 Old 02-10-2010, 04:45 PM - Thread Starter
 
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Honestly, I think if that if you have already had difficulty committing to speaking Arabic, if you allow yourself to believe that you cannot make them bilingual no matter what you do, it will only further feed your lack of commitment.
Perhaps I should explain my acceptance of the notion that you can't force a child to be fluent. My husband is (thankfully) doing much better at speaking to our baby only in Arabic, so chances are that she will understand the language. And we plan on expecting her and instructing her to speak Arabic to him. We hope that this, combined with holidays in Lebanon with her cousins (most only speak Arabic and French), will help her along. Yet there is an issue of will. She could be largely fluent until adolescence and then let it drop, or refuse to speak to other than her baba in Arabic. If we do our job of making knowing Arabic a necessary part of her life (where she must speak it in order to communicate with some people), this won't happen.

So I guess the concept that you can't "make" a child learn is largely philosophical, a notion that each person has a will that interacts with circumstances. Recognizing this frees me from having a "power struggle" and "this is impossible" mentality. I mentioned it in case it might help others.

I trust that everything you say is coming for the kindness of your heart and a desire to help me with this issue. I didn't mean to give the impression that I am not personally committed to speaking Arabic or to creating conditions for my daughter's fluency. I speak Arabic to my infant as much as I am able, but since I am not fluent, that's probably only about 20% of the time. (Unless I just wanted to shut up for the 80% of the time that I speak English, but I don't think that would be good for her overall development! The percentage I can speak to her in Arabic will increase with time.) I did plan to spend a long period in Lebanon before I got pregnant, with the express purpose of increasing my fluency, but there was some civil strife there and my flight was canceled. So I just have to do the best I can with the time, energy, and resources I have now. (I might have the chance to speak a month in Lebanon over the summer, which would be good for my daughter and me!) In addition, the fact that I am actively seeking out other Arab American families (in the local group I'm forming and possibly by going to the Concordia Language Villages language camps) facing the same issues is some indication of my commitment.

As far as the written language goes, I just don't feel that we have the support for it. I do feel sad about that, and your sharp post makes me want to rethink how we might accomplish it.

I actually have used mainly Syrian language resources for learning Lebanese. Because they are part of the same dialect group, it is easy enough to "convert" the accent. And we do have Lebanese TV at home. But I don't want her to watch television at all now, and very little when she's older. I'm grappling with the issue of "American cartoons in Arabic" because I intensely disapprove of the consumerism and other undesirable values I find wrapped up in American children's culture. It's hard to balance all these needs.

Thanks, UmmZaynab, for your thoughts on this issue!


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#10 of 10 Old 02-12-2010, 07:04 AM
 
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While I agree with UmmZaynab in principal, I will add a couple of points.

I also don't like the quote from the book. Of course you can "make" a child bilingual! You can "make" a child pretty much do anything you want but the question is, do you want to take that path to raising them?

My objection to that quote is the implication that choosing the mode of communication with my own children would be up to the child, not me. Of course a child would pick their stronger language! It's natural. But when my son started answering me in French, he got a lukewarm response. When he used English, I was quick off the mark to fill his requests. Parents are also allowed preferences and I preferred to hear my son answering in English. I didn't punish or scold his using French. I was just less responsive to it...

Some argue that I'm not "letting" my children "express themselves as they wish". Hogwash. As parents we're allowed to set standards and transmit values. I feel our relationship, now that they're older, is more meaningful because it's conducted in my native language. My children can talk to both sides of the family without needing someone to translate. They can "move" in both societies with ease.

As parents we "make" our children learn the social skills they need to function. Why are the rules any different with language? I don't let them eat directly off the plate and "make" them wash their hands after using the restroom. I don't think this thwarts them in any way.

Also, don't let the whole idea of reading and writing discourage this project. Your child is still young. My children naturally wanted to learn how to read English once they learned the other two languages. A lot of what they learned in French and German transferred over nicely.

Even though Arabic has a different script, this is actually only a detail. Associating letters with sounds is the concept they learn. If the letters are different, the same principals still are in place.

Remember that reading and writing are skills that anyone can learn at any age. Speaking is another matter. Children have the advantage of developing the accent at a native level. Someone who speaks "kitchen" whatever is still miles ahead of the game. Learning to read and write has more options too. The child could go spend time with relatives, enrol in a course, etc. to learn to read and write.

The written form of some languages is almost an entirely separate skill. Some languages make it blissfully easier, specifically if they're phonetic and/or have a formal version which is not that different than the spoken. But any child who can speak a language solidly, and can read and write any other language, can learn!
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