Let’s start by agreeing that parenting is an unpredictable experiment. Mistakes are part of the journey and there’s no way to avoid them. We can be pretty darn hard on ourselves, but we tell our kids to forgive themselves for their mistakes and that all that matters is that we learn from our mistakes. One way we avoid parenting mistakes is by talking to other parents, learning from our own parents, and reading about what science has discovered to be things we should and shouldn’t do when it comes to parenting.
When it comes to teaching one’s children Arabic, in a non-Arabic speaking country, and in the face of technology and shortened attention spans, there’s not much in the way of “past experience.” Yes, many of our parents had to teach us Arabic too, but for most, it was their dominant language as immigrants to the US or Canada. For second or third generation Arab-Americans, that is not the case. So the challenge is even more daunting but the desire to maintain one’s connection to their heritage, faith, and culture is strong enough to motivate many of us to stick to it.
We asked ourselves and other parents teaching their kids Arabic about the mistakes they made in their journey and we found several common answers. Here are the top five mistakes parents make when teaching their kids Arabic, and ways to avoid them (if you’re new to this) or fix them (if you’ve already made some).
1. Not speaking to your kids (at all or enough) in Arabic.
Many of you said you stopped speaking to them in Arabic when they entered school. At home when they are still babies or toddlers and you controlled their environment, it was easy to stick to Arabic. But once they enter preschool and start gaining more confidence in speaking English, both parents and kids find it easier to just speak in English. We’ve been there too.
How do we fix this? Pick up where you left off! No, don’t convince yourself it’s too late or that there is no point in starting back up. It’s never too late because a child’s mind is an amazing thing. Think about how quickly they learn to configure a new gaming system after a few tries. At the same time, going from 0 to 60 can be hard on all sides. Start by picking a specific time of the day where you have “Arabic only time,” such as during dinner. As you both get more comfortable with this, continue to speak it when possible. Prepare yourself mentally for your child to be resistant to this change. If they respond to you in English, translate what they said and ask them to repeat it back to you in Arabic. Don’t be afraid to speak to your child in Arabic in public. Use a reward system for whoever speaks more in Arabic during the day. Even if your child has trouble responding in Arabic, they are still learning from hearing you!
If you’re a new parent, start from day 1! Babies can distinguish between the sounds of languages and there is plenty of scientific evidence to show that talking to babies from an early age helps develop their brain and ability to speak.
2. Not making Arabic learning fun.
Parents told us they often focused too much on following a curriculum and making progress on writing, grammar and reading instead of just making Arabic an enjoyable experience. Our kids then began equating Arabic to everything boring, strict, and frustratingly difficult. That’s not to say that there can’t be educational components of our Arabic lessons, there must be (and kids will still complain, as they do about school). But we have to admit that our traditional ways of teaching Arabic are mostly outdated and until recently, utilized boring books and materials.
How do we fix this? Focus a bit less on schooling and curriculums and more on making Arabic lessons interactive, hands on, and tied to activities they enjoy. This is a job for parents and teachers alike. At home, try playing their favorite games but in Arabic. Be picky in your choice of an Arabic tutor, weekend school, or full-time school. Talk to the teachers and emphasize that it’s more important for our children to LOVE Arabic first than to learn pronouns in Arabic. Show your kids that Arabic books, puzzles, and toys can be fun and engaging (we only carry the most engaging and appealing Arabic books and toys because we know the struggle you’re facing!).
3. Giving up too quickly.
Teaching a child a second language is not a walk in the park. But it’s not impossible. Many of you are doing it, and you’re seeing the fruits of your labor. There is no one-size fits all approach.
How do we fix this? Don’t compare yourself to others. Remind yourself of your goals, why you’re doing this, and how much you both will appreciate this effort in the long run. Be realistic in your expectations but don’t underestimate what children are capable of learning. Remind yourself to stay the course and you will surely see results, even if not immediately.
4. Not joining an Arabic learning community.
We might find it easier to go on this journey alone, at our own pace. But there is merit to having a group of like-minded parents who can exchange ideas, experiences, and resources. As with any other goal, it’s always good to have an “accountability partner” of sorts.
How do we fix this? Join a local or online community! This could be a homeschooling group, a weekend playgroup, or a recurring library story time. Being with other parents who are on the same journey will encourage you to stay on course and introduce you to new ideas and ways of teaching kids Arabic. Most importantly, it might give your kids an opportunity to interact with others in an Arabic welcoming environment. If you can’t find one, start one!
5. Not reading to your kids in Arabic.
Many parents we asked said they regretted not making Arabic “a part of their daily life activities.” Arabic was restricted to a specific class or Sunday school but didn’t feel like a natural part of their daily lives.
How do we fix this? Reading is an easy way to bond with your child and it can be incorporated into your existing routine. Why not specify at least one Arabic book for bedtime reading? Or listen to an Arabic audio book on your way to soccer practice? For parents, reading is an easy way to get more Arabic in your routine without having to “think about it” and for children, hearing new vocabulary is important for their language development. Don’t miss out on this practical way to bring more Arabic into your child’s daily routine!
We hope this is helpful to parents of young and old kids. We’ve made every one of these mistakes and continue to struggle with them at different times and stages of our childrens’ development (#5 prompted us to start Maktabatee!).
The takeaway is: don’t give up, we’re here to help, success is possible!