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Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Spanish at the Price of Arabic?

Spanish at the Price of Arabic/ © pio3 -

One month ago, we embarked on our official trilingual family journey, introducing over four hours of Spanish daily (via an afterschool program I created) to my oldest, and two hours per day to my youngest (due to different kindergarten and preschool schedules). My goal is for them to be fluent speakers of both Arabic and Spanish. Arabic is the language my husband has spoken to our children since birth, as we have diligently followed the OPOL method. But we discovered OPOL alone was not enough to make our children fluent Arabic speakers, which I have written about before. We therefore found a babysitter to supplement their Arabic, who picked them up from preschool and spent about 2.5 hours per day with them, all in Arabic. Much of this time was often spent at her house, with her children, which was a tremendous support to their Arabic development.


With the addition of our daily Arabic-speaking babysitter, I started to hear the girls respond to my husband’s question in Arabic. Granted, it was only a word or two, but at least it was no longer 99% English. Miraculously, the times I was over at our babysitter’s house, I witnessed my kids speaking slow Arabic to her children. One day at her house, my oldest even came running over to me breathless to ask me for something in Arabic, seemingly forgetting who she was talking to and in which language. It was unusual but exhilarating. Turns out, she was asking me for juice.


But things are different now. With the advent of Spanish, their only contact with our babysitter is at school pick-up, after which she drives them to the Spanish program. That’s probably all of 10-15 minutes of additional Arabic per day, as opposed to the previous almost three daily hours. The kids, especially my younger one, miss the time they used to spend playing with her children. I miss their added exposure to Arabic.  But they are learning Spanish, I remind myself. They will be able to speak Spanish, a language I love and an important one to speak in the U.S. Plus, it’s the world’s third most widely spoken language. Really exciting, right? But some days I can’t help but feel Spanish is coming at the expense of Arabic, and I feel a tinge of sadness.


In my spare time, I find myself researching Spanish resources.  I don’t spend time anymore thinking about their Arabic language development. I haven’t organized myself enough yet for TV programs and movies in Spanish, but that’s next. Although the question will be, which language will dominate now, Spanish or Arabic? Or will we do 50-50 in terms of household resources dedicated to the language?


Despite my questions, I must admit, it’s terribly exciting when I hear their basic Spanish forming. “No mas orange juice,” I heard Jasmin telling one of the kids the other day. Yesterday, I overheard Lila, my four-year-old, answering the teacher’s question, “Que color es esto?” (What color is this?): “Amarillo” (yellow). They can count in Spanish and respond to very basic  commands like “wash your hands,” and “take off your shoes.” All in one month’s time!


Another new development is I feel confident speaking to them in Spanish now. When we play games, I change the language to Spanish, as I know they can understand some; it’s not tiring to try to speak to them in Spanish now like before. But if I push it too much, Lila will command me to, “Speak in English,” in the same voice she reserves for telling me when something is boring.


Finally, I feel I can contribute to my children’s multilingual language development. With Arabic, I was relegated to the cheerleader. And while I was happy to support their Arabic in any way I could, being honest, I’ve never been the cheerleading type. It feels great to be playing a more active role in their languages. But the question persists—is Spanish coming at the expense of Arabic?


It’s too soon to tell but I hope the answer is no.

© 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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  1. CommentsInCultureParent | How Immersion Travel Helped My Kids Progress in Spanish   |  Friday, 03 May 2013 at 11:58 am

    […] our trip to Mexico, my children took to Spanish like a fish to water. They have been learning Spanish since September in afterschool time, initially for 20 hours per week and since November for five hours per […]

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