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Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Tipping the Bilingual Scale on Arabic Exposure

Tipping the scale on Arabic exposure/ © gunnar3000 -

A few weeks ago, my husband I spent an inordinate amount of hours at work. It was one of those truly hellish weeks for working parents, where we both had important and long work commitments at exactly the same time, which made for a childcare scramble. Luckily, our babysitter was very accommodating (including arriving at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m.). With that week behind us and sleep now caught up on, I see how the extra Arabic language exposure tipped the scale in favor of the girls speaking more Arabic.

While usually my husband would be with the girls for the 1.5 hours in the morning the babysitter filled in, and we would both be home for the four extra hours she filled in at night (versus her usual two-three hours), it meant in total the girls had about 10 to 15 extra hours of exclusive, monolingual Arabic input. I say monolingual because a lot of their Arabic input is bilingual, meaning they hear both Arabic and English when my husband and I are present together. It is not an exclusive Arabic environment. On a few of the evenings we worked late, the kids went to the babysitter’s house with her family and children, a purely Arabic language environment.

The result of those extra Arabic hours was surprising. The girls suddenly began saying a lot more Arabic words. First, I noticed they were answering the babysitter’s questions in Arabic in front of me, instead of their usual English. They still answered their father in English however. Then the past few days, they have been mixing Arabic and English in their sentences. Tonight at dinner Lila said, “I want more zeitune afek” (olives please). Usually, this would have been said purely in English.

The 10 to 15 extra hours of monolingual Arabic exposure has me wondering. What is the tipping point of language exposure input that shifts the balance from passive to active, from understanding to speaking? Clearly just that little bit extra of Arabic, in an exclusive Arabic environment, made a big difference in their Arabic speaking.

© 2012, Stephanie Meade. All rights reserved.

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Stephanie is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent. She has two Moroccan-American daughters (ages 5 and 6), whom she is raising, together with her husband, bilingual in Arabic and English at home, while also introducing Spanish. After many moves worldwide, she currently lives in Berkeley, California.

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