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sky_and_lavender 05-31-2012 01:52 PM

My daughter is about to turn three. We have had resounding success with her learning Arabic. She was an early talker and during a recent visit to my husband's Arab country, it became clear she speaks Arabic much better even than native speakers a year or two older than she is.

I'm her primary caregiver and not a native speaker, but my native-speaker husband is also very present in her daily life. For the past 6 months, my English-only mother lived with us,  so my daughter increased her knowledge and ability with English. (I also speak with my husband around 50% of the time in English, a percentage that fluctuates a lot based on different factors. Sometimes it is more like 20% English.) She understands well but her speaking ability in English is weak compared to her Arabic. I am sure this will be remedied totally in a couple of years when she goes to school, or maybe even before then because of community and my mother's influence.

My issue is that I am not a native speaker and I am not even 100% fluent in Arabic. It has been constant work and struggle for me to keep up and learn the Arabic I need to communicate in my family. I can't keep up!  I realize it would be nearly impossible for me to provide for her in Arabic the kinds of stories, parenting and creative use of language I'd like to share with her in our daily lives in the next couple of years. Sometimes I am finding it frustrating and difficult to "be myself" with her in Arabic as I struggle to come up with words or phrases. Yet it is hard for me to imagine leaving Arabic behind all together, and I don't want to do that at all. I'm trying to figure out a structured way to organize our lives so I can share stories or guidance/discipline in English while also having plenty of time to speak together in Arabic. 


It would be nice if I could sometimes speak English to her and have her continue to just speak Arabic to me, since I understand well, but I don't think it's realistic.Yet I do expect to continue to get better in Arabic, and I expect most communication to be possible in Arabic (as it is now, but in a few years, conversations will be more demanding.)

Wondering if anyone has experience with this.  Here are some of my ideas:

  1. Arabic when we are all together, English (from me to her) when we're alone. So that would mean, a couple of hours before my husband goes to work, at lunch, and from about 6pm until bed, and weekends.  That means weekdays she would get about 5 hours of Arabic and 7 hours of English. This doesn't appeal to me very much, as it would require me totally changing my language of interaction when we are alone together. It is very weird for us to speak English to one another, so if we did something like this, we'd have to see how to prevent a traumatic change.
  2. Continue with Arabic mainly, but use English for storytelling and whenever I am finding it difficult to think/speak about something in Arabic.  (I would only use whole sentences of English, not mixed up sentences. I very occasionally speak to her in English now, and I sing English songs to her sometimes. She doesn't mind and always asks me to read to her in English, which I sometimes do.) I think this is "dangerous" because it might give the impression that we're okay with mixing languages constantly, and I'm not really okay with that. I want her to be able to express herself in Arabic, and in English, not just in Arablish. Yet it would be the simplest solution.
  3. Have two periods of the day on the weekdays, for example after we go to the park and are playing at home, between 10am and noon, and from post-nap until around 5, when I speak English. I could use this time to tell her things or clarify things that I feel I haven't fully expressed in Arabic.
  4. Organize activities (on our own or with other people) outside the house during which I speak English with her, but keep speaking 95% Arabic at home.
  5. Keep on chugging along in my Arabic studies and assume it is going to get easier later... (But no matter how good I become in Arabic, I will never be a native speaker and probably won't be fluent as long as I live outside an Arab community. Although in a way, my husband and daughter are a little Arab community.)

Thoughts? Please be gentle. This is a difficult decision for me.
Thank you!
(x-posted on multilingual living)

minnowmomma 05-31-2012 02:04 PM

If your first language is english and your husband's is arabic why can't you both speak your native language to her so that she becomes fluent in both?

mambera 05-31-2012 04:06 PM

I would do your second option, it seems like the most natural for you and would give your DD the benefit of whatever Arabic time you can share with her as well as the benefit of your fluency and creativity in English. 


As pp said I don't think you need to stress this so much, OPOL can work fine although I think what you are doing is even better and I admire your effort and determination in learning Arabic well enough to speak it with your DD. 

IsaFrench 06-01-2012 06:21 AM

I have used both languages (mine and Dh's) with my children ...DH works long hours and is not too much in languages (+ mainly speaks "my" languag actually, at home)

how much i speak which language depends on where we live actually ... it worked well withDD1 & she's always been an avid reader by the time she learned to read so it was just question of providing enough books in both languages (and helping doing homework in the language of the counrty we were not living in !)

mixed sucess with DS ....who always found it difficult to use both languages at the same time so switched and totally forgot L1 by the time he's been in the country of L2 .... and had to re-learn L1 3 years later & doesn't read much in any language so what he speaks now is more dependant on what I speak to him (not as for DD1, who switches languages depending on what she wants to say, who she says it & how she feels like on the day ...)


so in my situation, OPOL wasn't quite an option

and mom speaking both languages CAN work, but it will ALSO depend on the child and what they "want" to speak (how stuborn they are ?)

sky_and_lavender 06-03-2012 03:46 AM

Thanks for your replies! I was really surprised you all endorsed just mixing languages in daily life. I have been turning the idea over in my head and trying to imagine what I want to say in English instead of Arabic. I'm finding it very difficult. Speaking Arabic with my daughter feels natural, warm and alive; speaking English to her feels empty, lonely and very foreign. It's hard to describe fully, but I almost literally can't make the words in English come out of my mouth. Maybe I will feel differently after I more officially make my decision about how to approach this issue. For now, I'm still mulling it over.


To answer the issue of why not OPOL, it just doesn't fit our situation or language goals. Arabic is in no way a "prestige language" around here and most Arab people we know--Arabs married to other Arabs or to non-Arabs--have ended up with kids who barely understand Arabic and don't speak it. Even those who consciously tried to pass on Arabic were not very successful. Before our daughter was born, we researched the issue a lot and determined that "as much Arabic as possible" was our best option.  We don't have enough people around us on a regular (daily, weekly) basis who speak Arabic, and I am with our daughter more than my husband is. But most of all, OPOL doesn't fit our family culture. We do everything together, so it would be uncomfortable for us to not speak the same language. We enjoy having our "home language" be mostly Arabic. Since I have the means and wherewithal to learn Arabic, that's what we chose to do.

sky_and_lavender 12-01-2012 07:09 PM

It seems like it's been ages since I started this thread!


I ended up adding in some stories and nursery rhymes in English, but really not using much English in conversation at all. Now, at 3 and a few months, my daughter's Arabic is incredible! It's really remarkable to see how creative and strong she is in Arabic.


I still find it so hard to speak English with her even though I feel it is the most loving thing to do, since I sometimes find myself coming up against my weaknesses in Arabic and feeling frustrated (mostly unconsciously in the moment). I am so used to being committed to finding a way to communicate in Arabic that it rarely occurs to me that English would be a good option at that moment. I have this irrational belief that once we introduce English into our conversation, Arabic will disappear forever between us.


I feel confident she will continue to speak Arabic with her father, though, and to use it with others in the Arabic language community I've been working hard to create. I am planning to make it so that whenever my husband is around, we all speak Arabic all the time, but when I'm alone with her I speak a mixture of Arabic and English as needed.


I feel my daughter's life would be enhanced if her English communication skills were stronger. She understands well already but her spoken English is quite weak. We attend an (English language) playgroup weekly and live in the US in a English speaking environment, where she is constantly struggling to communicate in English. I sometimes feel it must be frustrating or difficult for her socially that she can't communicate very well in English. It could affect how she perceives herself as a social being if she can't communicate well, right?

IsaFrench 12-02-2012 03:12 AM

if i were you, i would start to worry about what you talk in your last paragraph .... only after she turns 5 (most likely that by then what you see as a weakness in english will have vanished, if it hasn't, then reassess your options ....)

sky_and_lavender 12-02-2012 06:40 AM

Originally Posted by IsaFrench View Post

if i were you, i would start to worry about what you talk in your last paragraph .... only after she turns 5 (most likely that by then what you see as a weakness in english will have vanished, if it hasn't, then reassess your options ....)


Thanks so much for your thoughts.

So in your opinion, it isn't harmful for a child if she has difficulty verbally communicating with the other (non immediate family) people in the environment? We're not really ones who believe "early socialization with peers" needs to be a big part of a young child's life, but it is a part. It seems like she is just so much more gregarious in Arabic than in English, and I feel this is her "natural" way of being that she can't express with English-speaking peers. 


We have been planning to keep her at home (not daycare or school) until age 5, when she'll need to go to an English language school. We just haven't been very successful in cultivating relationships with other Arabic speaking children, largely because it seems most other Arab parents are not conscious about any strategy to pass on language.

IsaFrench 12-03-2012 02:38 AM

some people might be more concerned about getting "extra" socialisation with peers in english/people in the environnement .... i think it's nice if it's to be had without too much hassle .... but in the end, family (and close friends) circle is more important, in my eyes, for the first 5 years ....

i should think that she just needs a little bit more time to feel at ease in english and therefore wouldn't "push it" for the moment

finding the "right" balance might be hard depending on circumstances ...

i believe that as long as she's very much at ease with Arabic, then all the "extra" (in english) is just ... nice to have but not worth stressing out about ...

sky_and_lavender 09-24-2013 06:49 PM

Another check in. Without much change in my behavior--I read books and tell her some extemporaneous stories and sing English language songs--my daughter is now, at age 4, passable in English. Her Arabic is outrageously good--she even makes up poems in Arabic, and word plays, and is so creative. I'm sure she'll have that in English eventually. She surely is working to catch up these days--most of her play alone is in English lately. Sometimes I feel worried that she'll lose Arabic but I think by now I'm being unreasonable. She never speaks English with my husband and still loves Arabic. I'm also working to build more of an Arabic language community. Not sure if it's feasible that kids living in the US but who speak Arabic at home will play with each other in Arabic, but I'll try.

The next challenge is that we have a new baby, and we really want the 4 year old to relate to her in Arabic. But I feel it would be best if I speak more English with my older daughter while using Arabic with the baby. (And my husband will continue to speak to them both in Arabic only.)


In the end, I realize I can create conditions that support both languages, but I can't completely force them to speak one language or another. So we'll see what happens!

IsaFrench 09-25-2013 10:28 PM

but I can't completely force them to speak one language or another. So we'll see what happens!


indeed .... DS doesn't wish to speak english much & not much i can do about

he will write to his gran in english if i ask him to do so ....

he will watch films in english too ....


i wish he would be "more" bilingual, but i have to "let go" .... and let him be .....

Mosaic 09-26-2013 05:25 AM

Honestly, I would keep up the "as much Arabic as possible" plan. My situation is very similar to yours: non-native speaker of the minority language at home. Only my children are now 3.5 and 7 and go/went to an immersion daycare where they had additional reinforcement of the language from other native speakers, and my in-laws have lived with us for extended periods of time, further reinforcing their Spanish skills.

Once your child plays with other English-speaking friends, the English will skyrocket and it will definitely feel like a battle to keep the minority language going. My older DD goes to school with others who speak the same minority language at home: no matter, it's all English between them. My younger DD, who gets all-Spanish at home and all-Spanish at daycare (all native speakers) with a mixture of native English and Spanish-speaking children at school? Tons of English.

So in spite of trying to keep our girls in a Spanish bubble, their English is rapidly becoming their dominant language. It drives me nuts, too, because they learn it from others (especially other kids), and speaking Spanish at home robs us of the opportunity to correct grammar, improve vocabulary, etc. So as time goes on, we definitely use more English with the kids (especially around others, where it would be "rude" to speak Spanish in from of them) and naturally get the opportunity to pass these things along. But personally, we are avoiding increasing the majority language at home because it's omnipresent; and to be honest, if my only opportunity to keep up my Spanish is at home, I can't afford to let that slip.

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