All I Want for Christmas is Perfectly Bilingual Children

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.


  1. Great post!! Congratulations and best of luck with the new sitter. I’ve been looking to hire a native French-speaking babysitter for years, with no luck. Your post inspires me to keep searching and gives me hope that I might one day find one!

  2. Thanks Ladies. If you lived here Jill, I know a great French one to recommend to you! But yes, keep looking-it felt like I would never find a N. African one!

  3. I’m really impressed with your dedication to their bilingualism. 🙂 thanks for sharing this! It’s good tips and ideas for me to adapt into my situation.

  4. Hi Stephanie, thanks for sharing this. I really love reading you mention the strategic words…I’ve DEF. had that experience with our daughter, too. and though it wasn’t such a strategic thing, it has worked out to my benefit for sure when she’d sharing about her various bodily functions!)
    I can also relate to the point you made about your daughters not needing the language, and thought I’d include the post that I wrote earlier this year that addresses our daughters hesitancy to speak German with me because, like you said, she didn’t need it and English was easier. She now speaks ONLY German with me, and in this post, and a few that proceed it, I go into detail about how that all panned out…should you be interested. I understand all kids are different, and at the same time, I feel like I’ve been in that place where I really doubted she’d EVER switch to German, and we were headed down an input-only road of bilingualism (which I Really didn’t want).
    Thanks again, for sharing your post! And congrats!!

  5. Thanks for the feedback everyone!! Tamara- I can’t wait to check out your post! I appreciate the encouragement and knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel! And Allison, oh how I wish we lived in a big community of Arabic speakers everywhere we went.

  6. Read the above with interest and would like to add a few things about children who grow up in a bilingual environment. I grew up bilingually myself and now teach languages to children and work with children who come from a bilingual background. I believe in several fundamental things which have to be taken into consideration and which parents sometimes have not thought about yet in too much detail.
    Firstly, it is utterly important to understand that (second) language use has very much to do with self identification. This explains why children sometimes use their second language actively, some totally refuse or others only seem to use the language in certain situations or at some particular points in their lives. From a speaker’s perspective, speaking a second language can make you a part of something but can also single you out depending on the situation. Therefore, a child can feel special or intimidated by second language use.
    Secondly, I believe it is very important to not force any child to use a second language if they do not want to; they will eventually in their own time. Very often it is the parents who lack the patience.
    Thirdly, there is no such thing as being perfectly bi- or multilingual in languages, one will always dominate which is usually the one children are most exposed to – passively and actively; Even if the input of languages were to be exactly equaly devided – which only exists in theory – the individual will – if possible – always pick the language set which is the most comfortable one for them; the reasons here for are totally individual and do not necessary follow a pattern or can be necessarily influenced by another.
    And finally, being bilingual is not only about speaking a second language perfectly. It has to do with cultural influnces, mannerisms, attitudes etc., all which are additionally transmitted when using a language.
    What is important of course is the passive input of the second language; predominantly, the input is greater if the mother is the second language speaker as the vast majority of children spend more time with their mothers in early childhood than they unfortuntely can with their fathers. However, this does not mean children with fathers of a different language background cannot pick up the language just as well eventually; as I said, it is all about identifying with the language and what it means to the individual.
    I only speak German to my children, sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t but under no circumstances do I ever make an issue out of the fact that they prefer to speak English. And after five years my daughter recently decided to use German now from time to time or even for several weeks in a row.
    So, I would encourage anyone to just continue to expose their child as much as possible to the second language and to just go with the flow and give your child as much time as he or she needs.

  7. Great post, Stephanie, and one I can totally relate to. Where we live in New England it has been very hard to find native speakers of Turkish. But that doesn’t stop me from looking. 🙂 You are lucky in that your husband is committed to speaking Arabic with your daughters. For reasons that remain a mystery to me, my husband never took that on board and, alas, my kids don’t really speak Turkish. I think Michele’s points about not forcing a child to speak a language is so very important. It is something the child will (or won’t) do on his/her own. And we can never predict when that will happen. When my youngest was born, my mother-in-law came to help out. After six weeks she went back to Turkey and, as a surprise, my husband and eldest (then 22 months old) went with her for a short visit. Before they went, my son had always said “daddy” when talking to his father. When my son returned, he started calling his dad “Baba” and he’s been calling him that ever since.

  8. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful responses. @Michele—I appreciate your detailed reply. The “perfect” bilingualism was a bit tongue in cheek of me- we published a great article on how perfect bilingualism doesn’t really exist some time ago- but one can have Xmas dreams! What you say about kids identifying with a language is so true! I don’t feel my girls identify much with Arabic since we haven’t had much of an Arab community around us since we left Germany 4 years ago. I hope in the future this changes! And you give me such hope that maybe magically they will shift to speaking Arabic as your daughter did with German at age 5! And thanks for the reminder about not forcing Arabic. We don’t force it but I have encouraged my husband to make them repeat after him more when they want something….perhaps not the best approach! @ Justine- what a cute story about the Daddy/Baba shift. We have good Turkish friends (who only speak Turkish at home) whose little girl always called her Dad Baba, until she went to preschool and permanently switched to Daddy when she was around all the other English speakers!

  9. Hi ladies and happy New Year to you! Thank you for your replies and I’m glad I could assist with some encouragement. The wonderful thing about exposing children to a second language is that they will take it all in whether they like it or not; they will benefit from it even if it takes them much longer to relaise themselves. Personally, I only really began to appreciate being bilingual when I left school at 19 and started using my second language with all the self-confidence that is needed to do so! Hope you keep posting your thoughts and stories about your children, I look forward to reading about it.x

  10. Wonderful piece, Stephanie! I love the way you write and I look forward to reading more of your pieces!


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