Raising a bilingual child, or a child with a good grasp of a second language, seems to be yet another feather to add in the cap of the parents of this generation. I hear stories about parents spending a fortune on a Spanish-speaking nanny so that their kids can grow up speaking two languages. There are others who chase language immersion private schools, and some others who try their luck with their county lottery-based immersion language programs for public schools. Apparently, these days, having a second language makes the list of good parenting choices. It is not a fringe choice anymore. It is becoming the norm, at least in our area.
(Playing with an Arabic puzzle, speaking English. Photo Credit: Natasha Tynes)
My children were born into a family that speaks English (my husband and me) and Arabic (me), and guess what? They want nothing to do with a foreign language. And my speaking Arabic to them comes with some challenges.
Before I had my twins, I didn’t think much of the language issue. In fact, back then I couldn’t think of anything besides obsessing about the high possibility of premature birth among twins. When my kids arrived—premature, but thankfully healthy, I slowly began to think about parenting choices. I don’t remember ever having the language talk with my husband. We just talked to them. He in English, his native language, and me in in the language of my birth. We thought it would be easy (and of course free of charge). Our son and daughter would speak both languages fluently. End of discussion. Let’s move on and stress about other issues like allergies and the evilness of chicken nuggets.
But I talked with a certified speech therapist to validate my decision. She gave our language division the vote of confidence, and told me to stick to speaking to the kids in Arabic and let my husband speak with them in English, and all shall be well.
What the experts don’t tell you is that it’s not black and white, and certainly they don’t tell you about the judgment issues that you will face later down the road. Three years later, and to my disappointment, my American-born kids prefer English over Arabic. I talk to them in Arabic but they answer in English with some Arabic words in their English sentences. In their daily conversations, Milk is haleeb and bread is khoubez. But they still say I “want haleeb and khoubez” instead of biddi haleeb w khoubbez. How do I feel about it? Like absolute crap. Why don’t they just speak with me fully in Arabic when I work mostly from home and speak with them in Arabic non-stop all day long? How did I fail? Or did I? They are only 3. There is still time to fix this.
For the sake of my sanity I want to list some scenarios that I believe might have led to my kids’ language preference. Maybe by picking at the scab and examining these scenarios, I can somehow rectify things.
The park scenario: I speak with my kids in Arabic even in public. I don’t worry about standing out as a “foreign national.” After all, we live in a very diverse area and people speak in different languages. But when I need to discipline them – and that happens quite a lot – I switch to English. Why? I want the other moms who are mostly judging me because one of my kids had just hit their child to know that I do, in fact, discipline my kids and teach them to be decent human beings. I want them to know that my kids face consequences for their bad behavior. I switch to English so that they can overhear me. I want them to understand that this alien woman knows what she is doing.
The pre-school scenario: My kids are on the wild side of the behavioral scale. Hence, there are lots of talks with their teachers about their behavior. These talks usually involve the kids and me in front of their teacher. How is the teacher supposed to understand what I’m telling my kids if I speak to them in Arabic? I have no choice but to tell them in English that they are supposed to sit still in circle time, and that they need to inform the teacher when they need to “go potty” and that biting is in no way acceptable. Kids are smart. They get it. They know that their mom can speak English. They know that I’m only pretending to speak solely in Arabic, when in reality I speak both.
The family dinner scenario: Now the kids are old enough to sit down (for a short period) and have a family dinner, how are we supposed to have a conversation as family when their dad who only understands some Arabic is around? Having an all-Arabic conversation when their non-Arab dad is present makes for an uncomfortable family dinner. We switch to English.
It is hard alone being a mom, and it’s even harder when you are a mom who is trying to teach your kids two languages. You receive judgment from both your own people, and also from other non-Arab parents who make random comments about how you failed to teach your kids your mother tongue. “But you are with them all day long,” they say. You also receive judgment from other moms who are assuming you are not disciplining your kids enough while you speak to them in a weird language. For now, I have no choice but to continue to speak with them in Arabic and bribe them with stickers and maybe candy later (oh, the horror!) if they respond to me in Arabic.
I’m really doing the best I can, but for now Salam, as we say in a foreign land.
Natasha Tynes is a Jordanian-American journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the founder of Tynes Media Group. You can read her thoughts on parenting, digital media and the Middle East on her website, and you can also follow her on Twitter.