Parents' Corner: How One Dad Makes Arabic Learning Fun

We are excited to bring you our first guest post by one of our good friends, Hossam Abouzahr. Hossam has been a great supporter of Maktabatee since day 1 and his little guy is lucky to have the biggest collection of Maktabatee books and toys that we know of! Hossam has dedicated himself to learning and sharing the Arabic language through The Living Arabic Project, the first multi-dialect, online Arabic dictionary. 

I have one underlying theory to how I teach my son Arabic: make him associate Arabic with fun things. My own experience with Arabic growing up was miserable, making me associate the language with painful and boring lessons and constant failure on my part to fully understand. The little I do remember from my childhood Arabic is the fun stuff, and eight years of private school lessons have been blissfully blocked out. 

So here are some ways to make Arabic fun with your kids: 

1. Sing songs in Arabic: Arabic has hundreds of traditional kids songs to choose from, and most of them can be ordered online or simply downloaded. Al Salwa’s Arabic Nursery Rhymes series is probably the best out there right now: you get the books with the songs written down, the music in audio form, and a DVD with little animations on it. But there is a lot more: Rim Banna has a great collection of children’s songs in the Palestinian dialect, and Sana Mouasher has at least five CD’s of kids songs, many of them translations of traditional children’s songs from English. We play the songs in the car and sing them outside shamelessly.

You don’t have to limit yourself to kids songs. It’s good to start early with introducing quality music. I like to listen to the Egyptian folk musician and poet Fagumy with my son. Somehow, on the swing he likes to sing If the Sun Sank into a Sea of Clouds (إذا الشمس غرقت في بحر الغمام), and when we eat beans we sing On the Topic of Beans and Meat (عن موضوع الفول واللحمة).

2. Name things in Arabic: When I think about my son’s vocabulary for everyday things in Arabic, it is far superior to what mine was at his age, and he even knows words that many Arabs don’t know. What’s a piglet in Arabic? خِنَّوص in Fusha, or خَنُّوص in the Lebanese dialect. What’s a ladybug?دُعسوقَة. How does my son say a big ladybug? “Big دعسوقة”, as he gestures with his hands and opens his eyes wide. How does he tell me there is a mosquito on his foot? He says  في موس فوت, which sounds a lot like there is a moose on his foot, but I get what he means.

3. Play everyday games in Arabic: Everyday language is one of the most neglected parts of the Arabic language. It’s hard to find the names of bugs and certain toys, and even harder to find the names in a specific dialect. How do you say “tag” in Arabic? The word I know is زَقَط , but I’m sure other dialects have other words. What about slide and swing? The words I know are زُحْلَيقَة ِand مُرْجَيْحة respectively, but other dialects use other words (سُحْسَيْلَة in parts of Palestine, مَرْجُوحة in Fusha, etc.).

4. Read in Arabic:  I recall reading a study in grad school that said that a child coming from a well-educated household would have laid his hands on over 200 children’s books before kindergarten. Thinking of that for Arabic, I need way more books. Maktabatee has been my primary resource for quality Arabic books, and they’re always getting new things in. I also buy books in English and translate them to Arabic, simply glueing the new text on. It’s cheap and quick. I’ve even translated Everybody Poos into Arabic. If you don’t have time to glue the text on, you can just write it in next to the English. Or you could use wordless books like Goodnight Gorilla and just talk about them in Arabic. Our bedtime routine includes 20-30 minutes of Arabic reading while my son enjoys his bottle of milk.

Maktabatee Arabic children's books

5. English into Arabic: I grew up in the US, meaning I grew up immersed in English nursery rhymes, music, and games --- and I love American pop culture. With my son, I make up translations for songs that he comes home with from daycare and stuff from pop culture that I love. My son loves my translation of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” even though I lose the rhythm on one line. I have ridiculous translations of pieces of Peter, Paul and Mary songs, Simon and Garfunkel songs, and even parts of Dana Carvey’s “Choppin Broccoli” (hey, at least he eats his broccoli now).

Language is never isolated from context. Your child will remember what they associate with fun and love. To help you out with that, I've compiled a coloring book that you can print and color with your kids while talking about the animal in Arabic. Click here to download the coloring book (Arabic only or Arabic and English). 

- Hossam Abouzahr

June 12, 2017 by Maktabatee LLC

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