Don’t blame the child who doesn’t know “owl” in Arabic!

Recently I was sent a video clip by more than one person depicting a television host randomly asking young children (I would guess the eldest must have been 7 or 8) to name animals in Arabic. So he asks in Arabic, “what’s this?” and the children answer in English “crocodile”, “ladybug”, “owl” and so on. He then goes on to ask them, how do you “say it in Arabic?” and this is why the video has been shared so many times- the children don’t know a single one of those (nouns) words in Arabic, not one.

animalsOf course the reactions to such a video are, “you see, oh my God! Arabic is dying”, or “Goodbye the Arabic language”, or “you see and they tell us it is not dying”, or “we’ve lost that’s it” and “look at these kids, they even speak with an American accent but can’t name anything in Arabic” on and on. For this reason I have not supplied the video here because in these situations people feel that it’s okay to criticise the children, well it is not! It is not their fault they were recorded, how do we know if they gave their permission, how do we know their parents know this video is being shared online? (I don’t want to get into the ethics of sharing things without permission, that will need to be another post). But if they do not know these words in Arabic then we cannot demonise them for that, it’s not their fault.

Also to those people who criticise the children and base their lamentations on the fact that the children could not name the animals are forgetting one thing. They are forgetting that the children understood everything the host said to them and they were able to communicate back in Arabic and say “I don’t know”, ” no, that one, I don’t know it in Arabic, only in English”. As a multilingual myself I can tell you that it is no easy feat to be able to construct a correct and meaningful sentence like that- and at their age. At no point did the host ask them to repeat themselves or say “huh? I don’t understand what you just said”. I don’t think children who have no Arabic or very weak Arabic would be able to say these things.

parent-reading-to-childBy no means am I playing down the seriousness of the fact that as children of their ages they should really know these common nouns. But what I am saying is that it is not as gloomy as we might think it is on the surface. In other words, if these children get a good grounding in Arabic over the next few years they will master it by the time they are teenagers. They will of course need the same level of good language teaching in English too since some countries (mainly outside Europe save the Far East) are introducing English earlier and earlier into the curriculum. The children therefore need to, and I have said this here on this blog before, master two languages- and do so well. It is not impossible and as long as both school and home provide the correct input the child will develop at the same pace as a monolingual child. But where the input is not correct (not being prescriptivist here but a certain standard of language is needed) the child will fail to master language and in some cases both languages. Countries such as Denmark and others prefer to introduce English to their children at the age of 9 (there is variation with some starting at 8 whilst others wait until 11). So there are a number of models when it comes to providing children access to more than one language at the state level (National Language Planning). Each is valid and each has a methodology which supports it to make it work for the children because they are after all the future of the country. So each country, community or education system must find a way that suits their students (and please none of that copy & paste business!) and enact it well offering support where needed.

The parents must make a choice in how they wish, among the other millions of things they have to think about, their children to learn language. In the work I do we rbilingual-childefer to this as family language policy (see also the post before this one), where parents or a parent decide on the languages used within the home, outside the home and how they wish to support those. A great number of research is showing that the family is the centre of the well-being of the child and this also includes the child’s linguistic development. Parents (if they want their children to master Arabic) should be prepared to practically work towards it. It is not enough to buy DVDs or books, they must read to the child, listen to the CDs/DVDs (and explain to the child) and importantly talk to the child in Arabic (any form of Arabic).

I came across a very interesting article in the New York Times this week, that explores the fight to save Catalan in Alghero (a beautiful city north of Sardinia). What struck me when reading the article was what Sara Alivesi (a journalist for the only online newspaper in Catalan) said that, “You can organize conferences, publish books and do many other things, but speaking is the only thing that really keeps a language alive”. It makes sense. Of course it does. Speaking is the only way to transmit the language (any language) to the next generation as we know from the language maintenance literature. So if we expect young children to know nouns for everything, we must ensure that we teach them well and use these words when speaking to them. These things need time and consciousness at a certain level and in the situation where the language is in competition with another stronger one, well the parents have to work harder.

Parents reading with their children is a great way of helping them learn words and reinforce meanings, both direct and indirect. Yes, Arabic is in a uniquely difficult situation but with careful planning and a conscious drive and motivation from parents it cannot only survive but thrive alongside English.

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References 

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4 thoughts on “Don’t blame the child who doesn’t know “owl” in Arabic!

  1. Wow! I totally agree. I’m gonna do this with my kids now, I always feel deflated like how will my kids know my language? But now i see maybe I can try to work hard for them, because my language is important to me, it’s my life and culture. I speak a minority language from India and I want my children to master this language. We have some books in my language so I am a gonna buy some books of them. thank very much this is nice, I told my husband about it he will help me now even though his language is Danish. Thank you.

    • Hi Madiha, thank you for your comment. What you are saying is true for many parents wishing to raise their children bilingually. I am glad the post helped in some way, good luck and I hope to hear more about your progress soon.

  2. Hello Fatma, this is wonderfully relevant especially for me raising our son in Bahrain. I find it a challenge to ensure he learns my native French but also his father’s Bahraini Arabic. I have no issues with the Arabic side because of his grandmother and uncles, aunts etc..and my maid is an Arabic speaker (a very good one). My struggle is with French, I realised that I cannot be lazy as such and have tried many times to help him learn the language. I now know that as a parent I need to work hard to teach him my language. I mean he understands it but I find it frustrating if he cannot speak to my mother, he is only 4 but still. He speaks good Arabic to his father. So I got French books, CDs and I have been for the last 6 months just speaking to him in French. He is only now beginning to express himself in some French, this made me happy. But your thing that you have written here have made me agree and say yes it is up to us as the parents to teach the children. I think it will be easier for those Arab families since because their language is Arabic so a little effort and they can do it. Thank you, sorry for the long comment.

    • Hi Simone, thank you for your comment and for reading the post! The description of your language situation is one found in many multilingual families/couples. I am really excited to hear that your efforts are paying off, there is so much research these days that says a child needs a parent/caregiver to help them learn language. CDs, TV shows or technology for that matter are not substitutes. It is up to the parents and they can help as much as possible. Of course, there will be some children who will not become excellently proficient (personality and other differences) but on the whole parents’ efforts (especially in the early years up to 10 years old) usually pay off. Thank you for sharing your experience here, it makes what I write worthwhile because I know there are people out there who will benefit. Languages are too beautiful and too perfect a human characteristic to lose. Well done to you and all those parents out there working hard to transmit their languages to the next generation.

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