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Sunday, March 29th, 2015

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad’s language is limited

Raising trilingual kids with Dad's minority language via © shutterstock

Dear Dr Gupta,


I have two kids one is 3.5 and one is 2. My language is Arabic and I only use it to speak to my kids. My wife’s language is English, which is her language with our kids, but also she speaks Urdu to her mum and her mum uses Urdu with the kids. We are living in the UK.


To be honest I feel my kids are not picking Arabic as I am out at work and I only talk to them 1 or 2 hours a day, I feel helpless as my language is the number 3 in my kids life, not even number 2 as number 2 is Urdu.


Please if you can advise me with a plan or suggestions I would be very grateful.


Thank you,
Arabic Dad


Dear Arabic Dad,


I’m afraid this is a common experience of fathers. In order to acquire a language, small children need to be in a situation where it is being spoken for more time than many working parents have available. English and Urdu are supported by your children’s wider family and by the community, but it looks as if you alone are responsible for their Arabic. If Arabic is No 3, that is good. The danger is that they may have no Arabic at all.


If you can find other speakers of Arabic nearby, if they have children, and if you can meet up with them regularly, you may be able to keep Arabic alive for your children. Is there any possibility of a holiday with friends and relatives who speak Arabic?


If you are the only speaker of Arabic around, I’m afraid you may have to sigh and accept that these children are going to be bilingual in English and Urdu.


However….. don’t let them forget that their father speaks Arabic. Don’t stop speaking to them in Arabic, even if they answer in English, unless they reject it. If they reject Arabic completely, you will probably have to use English with them. But if you have to do that, mix a bit of Arabic in with your English.


Encourage them to recognise and use common social phrases in Arabic, and to recognise words. Sing to them. Get books in Arabic. Show them programmes for children in Arabic. But don’t pressure them, and don’t criticise them.  Praise them for any use of Arabic. Don’t worry if the Arabic is mixed with English and/or Urdu. Don’t worry if the pronunciation is poor. The aim of this is for them to know a bit of Arabic and to make them like Arabic, in the hope that they will learn Arabic when they are older. You want to keep Arabic fun.


The fact that Arabic is a major language with lots of media resources is helpful. It is a language with a lot of power behind it. Hunt out really good children’s books in Arabic.


I hope this is helpful.


Dr. Gupta

© 2015, The Editors. All rights reserved.

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  1. CommentsJani Koskinen   |  Sunday, 20 March 2016 at 3:59 am

    I wonder also that if your wife’s native language (or at least one of the native languages) is Urdu, as she talks Urdu with her own mother, why doesn’t she speak Urdu to your children? If you live in UK, your children will pick up English almost automatically because the environment is so English dominating. If your wife would speak them Urdu, they would have better opportunities to become truly bilingual (or hopefully trilingual, arabic also included). In this case I think they won’t pick up even Urdu as well as it would be possible.

  2. CommentsEllen   |  Friday, 22 April 2016 at 11:41 pm

    Dear Arabic Dad, I disagree with Dr. Gupta’s advice to drop Arabic if your children reject it. If you show your children that you are willing to speak English with them, they will not make the effort for Arabic. I am French, grew up in France but my mother who was British, spoke to me in English. I would respond in French. She “cured” me by sending me to my grandparents in London for two months during the summer break when I was 3.
    Now I am in a similar situation to you. I live in Taiwan so my kids are trilingual – Chinese, English and French a distant three. They get French only from me. I speak English with my husband, he speaks English to them and the environment, school, friends, grandparents, speaks Chinese. I used the summer holidays to go to France, and enroll them in clubs and activities where they can speak French. It is the best way. If you want your children to speak Arabic, the only way is for them to get exposure to the language. So maybe some holidays with their grandparents or aunts and uncles back home are in order. That should get them started. And then once a year if you want to maintain the language. It is expensive. Their Arabic will probably remain their 3rd language. But it is worth it. Whatever you do though, do not switch to English. Not even in social situations.
    Good luck.

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