Teaching My Son Arabic: Balancing Love and Grammar
I learned Arabic as an adult. I have a dual master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and public policy, and I have created an online dictionary of “al-Fusha,” or classical Arabic, and the Egyptian and Levantine colloquial dialects.
Despite my nerd credentials, teaching my son Arabic is one of the most interesting challenges I’ve taken on. It is a never-ending puzzle-solving process: trying to figure out how his mind works, how to make learning fun, and what are my own reasons for doing this.
Following are some takeaways from my experience, some of which I’ve discovered are supported by research. That is an important point: I’m not a specialist, but as a second-generation Arab-American, through sheer effort, observation, and a willingness to experiment—the same super powers all parents come equipped with—I’ve reached a point where my three-year-old speaks entirely in Arabic with me.
Time Is Everything
In teaching my son Arabic, there is no substitute for time spent interacting with him in the language. Contact hours are a key factor in learning any language, as this TED Talk points out. The U.S. State Department rates Arabic as one of the hardest languages, requiring about 2,200 hours for an adult to learn. My son gets about 1,000 to 1,500 hours in Arabic a year; the same amount in Urdu (my wife is from Pakistan and is passing her language on to him as well); and about twice that amount in English at daycare. As he turns three, that means he has about 3,000 to 4,500 hours in Arabic already.
The investment pays off. My son has memorized dozens of songs in Arabic, mainly in the different Levantine dialects but also some Egyptian. All of the everyday things we see inside and outside the house are named in Arabic: kitchen tools, toys, animals, bugs (you would be amazed at how many different bugs I know in Arabic). The variety is important: making his language as expansive as possible minimizes the likelihood that it will be limited to certain contexts within a narrow comfort zone as he gets older.
Multilingualism Is Cooperative, Not Competitive
One trick has been seeing the other languages he is learning in a cooperative relationship rather than a competitive one. While it is true that learning three languages means he has less time in any one language, it gives me the chance to expand his Arabic through everything else he learns. When he comes home with a new phrase in English, I help him translate it into Arabic. Similarly, I ask him to tell me what happened at daycare, which obliges him to translate events that happened in English into Arabic.
At times, it seems to me that he sees the languages as parallel tracks, and as one language develops he realizes he can add to the other—for example by asking for new words, something he does with new animals and toys. This illustrates an important point that I’ve realized in my own studies: the core of language is building all the associations with it. However, my son doesn’t have to recreate every association from scratch; instead, he can build through what he knows in other languages.
Balancing Between Al-Fusha and Dialect
While we do some al-Fusha, I focus on dialect. The reason is simple: He needs to be able to speak. One of the most awkward things for kids is to be noticed speaking incorrectly—it makes them uncomfortable and unwilling to continue in the language. Using al-Fusha can make adults laugh, not in a cruel way but in a way that it still embarrassing for a child, and other kids mock you no end. Teaching just al-Fusha at this point would probably be a death sentence for his language in the long term: it would limit whom he can interact with comfortably and the contexts he can navigate.
Al-Fusha is clearly a different language to him—it is different in vocabulary, pronunciation, morphology, and syntax—and teaching my son to balance between classical and colloquial Arabic is challenging. Since I am not in an Arab country, I cannot simply trust in schooling and the general environment to help him learn to differentiate between the two. So I try to build parallels between them. When we watch cartoons in Arabic, I listen for where there are going to be challenges, and then explain certain phrases in colloquial. Code-switching, the ability to switch between al-Fusha and colloquial, is an important skill, and the more he masters it in the long term, the better access he’ll have to the language.
A common tool when communicating in Arabic is the ability to pull in phrases from al-Fusha when needed. I’ve started doing this with my son, often illustrating the point by changing my tone when using al-Fusha. For example, when reading Taghrid al-Najjar’s Arnab Karma, I read the book in colloquial to him even though it is in al-Fusha. But when the mother says “يا أيها الأرنب المُخيف [O you scary rabbit],” the author herself was clearly playing on the formal tone of the phrase. This is something I take advantage of to introduce a phrase from al-Fusha that we can later use while playing.
I also look for Arabic books that are in straightforward, approachable al-Fusha. I’ve been able to buy some books in colloquial, and when I can’t find what I need, I translate some of my favorites from English into colloquial, like this version of Abiyoyo some friends helped with.
Grammar and Other Challenges
The biggest grammar challenge my son has now is gender and number agreement, and this clearly stems from the fact that his interaction is largely limited to me. A strategy I’ve started to use is to ask him if something is a boy or a girl, similar to what this author suggests, and then to help him repeat the sentence appropriately (but never forcing him to if he is not in the mood for it).
I have a feeling that the second-person feminine will elude us for a while, but I’ve started to use it when we play imagination games by adding in female characters. Overall, I avoid a rigid rule-based approach to grammar, instead focusing on teaching through practice and associations to things he knows so the language comes naturally to him.
I’ve managed to maintain and even strengthen my son’s Arabic as he has begun going to an English-speaking daycare. But the future challenges are really the daunting ones. Time will be the biggest challenge: more of his interactions will be in English, so Arabic will play a more minor role. In comparison to English, there is a dearth of good, accessible material for kids and young adults in Arabic. Everything comes in English: movies, games, comic books, novels, you name it. Much of what is available in Arabic is often poorly written, or written in an alien-sounding version of al-Fusha that is inappropriate for kids.
One solution might be to have him take Arabic classes. But if done wrong, classes can make kids hate the language. If my son’s class is entirely focused on grammar or if he doesn’t like the teacher, he will associate negative things with the language. If it focuses on the Islamic religion, as many Arabic classes do, it will limit the language in a way I’ve been trying to avoid by focusing on things like rigid pronunciation and memorization, a context that is distant from the fun and love we currently associate with it.
I would prefer having an after-school activity in Arabic, such as an all-Arabic art class for kids, or getting him private music lessons in Arabic. The challenge will be to find these things.
The issues before us are numerous, and if history is any guide then failure is more likely than success—subsequent generations of immigrants slowly lose their ancestors’ language. As a second-generation Arabic speaker, I grew up uncomfortable with and even hating the language, only to turn around as an adult and master al-Fusha and several dialects. I did it by finding a way to make the language fun and lovable. My son may still one day reject the language, which is a decision I would try to respect because I’m doing this out of love for him. But if I can show him the beauty of the world to which Arabic gives him access, then I have a chance at succeeding.
Hossam Abouzahr is founder of The Living Arabic Project, which aims to make a multi-dialect Arabic dictionary that cross-references with MSA.