When it comes to raising a bilingual child, I have several beliefs about how you can waste your time. I think it’s a waste of valuable second language reinforcement time if you don’t watch movies in the minority language, read books and listen to music in that language and most of all, have a babysitter or nanny in that second language. I would also never pay for private school if that education is not in another language. Private education is a valuable opportunity to send your kids to school in another language so why waste it on monolingual education? However despite all my lofty beliefs, we have not had many of those options available to us with Arabic. Arabic immersion school? Ha, I must be dreaming.
We have struggled with our children’s Arabic bilingualism in the U.S. because Arabic is not a language that is reinforced or supported much in the community. (I suspect that it would be different if we lived in say Dearborn Michigan, however.) I have many friends raising their children bilingual in Spanish, and comparatively, Spanish bilingualism seems to come a lot easier in the U.S. (I’m not saying it’s easy, but easier). Children actually hear that language when out in the community, giving them a sense that the language is greater than their household. Spanish books are found at every library and bookstore, we can flip on several Spanish radio stations in the car and even without cable, the kids can watch morning cartoons in Spanish. Through no effort on our part, two of our children’s preschool teachers are native Spanish speakers. When I scan the nanny listings each week and key word search for “Arabic,” I feel a ting of envy at the number of Spanish-speaking nannies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spanish and we often think about raising our kids’ trilingual in Spanish as well, since I speak it. They already learn a little at their preschool. But Arabic is their father’s native language—it is their heritage. When it comes to language importance in the family, Arabic is queen, sharing the spotlight with English.
My husband has spoken to both of our girls since birth in strictly Arabic, never lapsing into English, which would make us a one-parent-one-language (OPOL) family. As a result, they understand Arabic perfectly. However, 98% of the time, they answer him in English. They have certain words they say in Arabic (e.g., water, sleep, pray, aunt, uncle, grandmother/father) and others which are strategic on our part as they only know these words in Arabic and not English, like booger or fart—trust me, it’s so much better in the grocery store line when my kids hold up their finger and say “look, khanuna” than “look, booger!”
Since the girls were born, my husband has also been around a lot and spends quality time with them. We do all the “right” things to encourage their bilingualism: they read Arabic language books together (although unfortunately never in the Moroccan dialect–they don’t seem to exist–even in Morocco). They listen to Arabic music daily. My kids can sing many songs in Arabic. (Funny they can sing in Arabic but are unwilling to speak it!). I get the sense my children think Arabic is something remote, a tiny, useless language spoken mainly by their father. And yes, we Skype all the time with relatives but those conversations consist of the kids staring at the screen while everyone tells them, “How are you? God bless you! You’re beautiful!” while they alternate between smiling and shy before growing bored and shirking off to play. And yet, they still don’t speak much Arabic.
We all know that kids speak a language when there is a need. My kids have never sensed a need for Arabic. They don’t need it in their community, with friends or with their Dad. He understands them perfectly fine in English. The only time that changed was when we were in Morocco a year and half ago, when they were three and 18 months old. By the end of our three weeks, they were starting to speak to each other in Arabic. “Come play.” “Here, take this.” “I want milk.” It was beautiful and died about two weeks upon our return to the U.S.
Because we know their Arabic requires more support, our priority has been finding an Arabic-speaking babysitter, preferably in the North African dialect. We would love someone who speaks limited to no English or can at least pretend she speaks no English, so that the kids finally have a need to speak Arabic. When we moved to California close to two years ago, we thought it would be easy in such a multicultural community, flush with Middle Eastern markets and mosques, to find an Arabic-speaking babysitter. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we had previously lived, you could count the number of Arabs on two hands. At that time too, the girls were both under three and we believed that all it took to raise bilingual children was their father speaking his native language to them all the time. OPOL equals bilingual children, right? We were naïve back then.
The babysitter search has sometimes felt Sisyphean. The first Arabic speaking babysitter we found was Yemeni, which wasn’t ideal dialect-wise as Yemeni and Moroccan are far more distant than Portuguese from Brazil and Portugal, but hey, it was Arabic. She proved to be too old school and never made it past the interview stage. Then we had a slew of finding almost-but-not-quite-right babysitters, mainly Turkish and Persian. They were all warm and kind, the type of people we would want watching our kids, but they only spoke a little Arabic, mainly from learning to read the Quran growing up. Finally, we stumbled upon an Algerian who seemed ideal–it was the same dialect. Exciting! But after we hired her, she wanted nearly double the rate our other babysitters charged and while bringing along her two-year-old. We couldn’t go broke for the kids’ Arabic (although I tried to convince my husband we could pay, we should pay, in the name of Arabic, but trust me, you don’t want to step between two Arabs negotiating, especially if one has quoted a price the other deems to be ridiculous—you may as well forget it.) Again, disappointment.
But finally, it seems I may be getting close to my Christmas wish. We found a Moroccan babysitter! She seems great with the kids so far, is available at the hours we need (no easy task when you need only part-time) and again she’s Moroccan! I can’t wait to see her level of impact on the girls’ language development. I hope that she is the missing link we need.