One Overly Analytical Mother's Obsessive Musings about Raising Small Children

Saturday, October 30, 2010

When NY Firefighters Read Arabic Books: Thoughts on Raising Bilingual Kids

My husband and I are attempting to raise our two young children to speak both English and Arabic. Attempting is the operative word here because raising bilingual kids is one heck of a difficult task. You have to make a conscious and conscientious effort every single day. Even when the entire world around you is speaking English, you have to speak in the other, or second, language.

Foreign language acquisition experts argue that the best time to learn a new language is in early childhood. The earlier the better. The baby's developing ear attunes itself to hear the sounds of language, as the child learns how to actually verbalize, or copy, those sounds. There's an anecdote that goes something like this: If you haven't heard the particular sounds of a language by the age of two, unless you have a very attuned ear, it will be nearly impossible for you to ever reproduce those sounds with native accuracy in adulthood because your ear literally cannot hear those sounds in order for you to verbalize them.

But the experts also tell us that children do a remarkably good job of keeping all of this in their little heads. Sometimes they have a hard time sorting out which language is which, or which alphabet is which, but eventually it will all make sense. It's not unusual for a bilingual kid to start talking a little bit later than "normal" (whatever that is). I have to remind myself that now because my daughter isn't saying a whole lot, even though she should be. But when she does, I can't seem to understand it--it's as if she's speaking both Arabic and English. For example, one of her favorite foods is a tomato, which is "bandoora" in Arabic. During mealtime, she'll point to a tomato, and say something like "doo--ta," as if she's combining the two languages into one mishmash of the two.

Not to put even more pressure on parents who are also attempting this feat of raising bilingual kids. Do it now or forever lose your window of opportunity!

The day to day realities of raising bilingual kids range from the hilarious to the gently thought provoking. Of course, there's a lot to think about when one of the languages belongs to an ethnicity that Americans associate with terrorism. My kids are too young to know about September 11. They do not know that, as a result of 9/11, some Americans harbor prejudice and fear against Arabs. They do not even know that not everybody else is like them. Not everybody else has a daddy who is from somewhere else, speaks another language, and eats tabbouli and olives for breakfast. Because they are too young to know any different, all of these things are normal to them. And why not?

But now and then we'll have a moment that causes me to chuckle....and then to really think. The other day, I was reading a bedtime story to my son who is infatuated with fire trucks and firefighters. The picture book we were reading was about a New York City fire department, and some of the things that they do. In one of the last pictures, it showed a group of weary firefighters relaxing after a hard day of putting out fires. One of the firefighters was reading a book, and his small book's page was a bunch of squiggles. My son looked at that and said: "Is that an Arabic book, mommy?" It made perfect sense, though. Before I learned how to read Arabic, I too thought that Arabic looked like a bunch of squiggles and dots. When we were kids, my sister and I used to pretend to "write Arabic" by making lots of squiggles, dots, and loops. Everything looked all flow-ey, punctuation was backwards, and you read from right to left. How weird is that?! That's not a's just squiggles. 

 But seriously. I think of the NYFD and I think: these are the people who were on the front lines, who not only had to deal with the immediate destruction of the Twin Towers, but also with the toxic aftermath. They put their lives in danger to save people who were in danger. They saw the death of their fellow firefighters during the attacks, and are now discovering lingering health problems as a result of their heroism. I don't know for sure, but I don't think that NY firefighters kick back after a hard day and read Arabic books. Ten years out, things still feel too raw. Too edgy. The way that being Arab still causes people to look at you out of the corner of their eyes and wonder if you have a bomb in your diaper bag. I just hope that by the time my son is old enough actually to be a firefighter, reading an Arabic book in the firehouse won't be cause for alarm.


  1. Good for you! We are also attempting to raise bilingual Arabic-English children, although it's easier (I imagine) here in Egypt than it would be in the U.S.

    May I suggest reading lots of Arabic books and playing Arabic kids' CDs for your children? I have suggested titles if you need them!

  2. Cool article Julie. We don't have kids yet but our kids will have to know Arabic, Spanish, English and French but we find things may come surprisingly naturally. My wife's dad would speak to her in English while her mom would speak to her in Spanish and she is fluently bilingual. We figure we'll imitate the same thing: I'll speak to them in Arabic and she'll speak to them in Spanish. The kids will hear us speak English to one another(and because of the media) will learn english. Sending them to French school cures the learning French requirement. We know a couple of people that have done what we plan (with different) languages and it has worked wish us luck then the time comes. :)

  3. Thanks for the feedback, guys! We have a bunch of Arabic books and some are bilingual Arabic-English. I do not have Arabic kids music though. Any recommendations for either books or music would be appreciated...thanks!
    The problem is that I do most of the story reading and I can read Arabic but I go really slow and have to look at all of the diacritical marks to make sure I'm pronouncing things correctly.(probably like a kindergartner :)
    At the very least I am learning more Arabic along with my kids!