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.