Learning any new language can be overwhelming. Especially when it’s not one you here often in America. My father is a Palestinian immigrant who came to the United States in the 70s for a better life. My mother was an All-American girl who grew up in Baltimore but excelled in French. I, however, grew up in Florida and the only option in school was to learn Spanish. My childhood was a mix of learning these 3 different languages somehow simultaneously.
My mother was a volunteer French teacher at my elementary school and she also taught my sisters and I at home (probably more as her guinea pigs). We went to ‘Arabic school’ on Sundays; I use this term lightly as it was basically 2-3 aunties that tried their best to handle 20 rowdy Arab kids in a small room that was rented at the hospital my father worked at. Unfortunately, my father didn’t teach us Arabic for fear we would end up with a hard accent like he had. And during school hours we would learn Spanish from elementary through high school. I still to this day mix up my sentences sometimes and you can see why.
But fast forward, I am married to a Palestinian/Jordanian and we have 2 beautifully, healthy children Alhamdulillah. I am determined that I didn’t want them to grow up confused like me. The basics work when they’re babies but they grow so fast. And they outgrew my limited vocabulary. So, like any good mother, I did my research. Pinned posts on Pinterest, did crafts, got printable from online bloggers, & begged for relatives to bring books in Arabic for my kids, but of course they would bring clothes and toys instead.
I’ve come to realize that learning and teaching Arabic go hand in hand. I first needed to start with myself. Here are the 5 ways I’ve learned to teach my children Arabic and I hope they help all of you who have struggled or are struggling with this daunting task.
1. Talk and Talk Early!
This goes with any language; the more you hear it the more you repeat it and eventually understand it. Experts say that a fetus begins to hear sounds at 5 months! Subhanallah that’s amazing! If you’re not a native speaker like myself, this is a great way to start. Listening to Arabic music or YouTube videos was the way for me to build on my basic vocabulary. Thanks Mona :) It was easy for me to listen on the go since during my pregnancy I was working 2 jobs full time. I bought books and CDs to further what I couldn’t understand.
Importance of learning through play:
For children play is a serious way to learn and develop skills. While playing pretend grocery children will often times use math and literacy. They learn new vocabulary as they are playing and counting their toy fruits/vegetables. But most of the time when we hear learning through play we tend to over complicate it. We think of all the toys to buy and think of ways to incorporate them.
Instead, I learned to focus on open-ended quality wooden toys that will last and allow you to use it in more than one way.
It’s not the quantity (of the toys) that matters as much as the quality of the toys in terms of longevity and purpose of the toy. This is sort of a minimalist way of looking at toys before bringing them into the house.
Label everything in Arabic! It’s hard enough that our kids don’t hear much Arabic at school, at the playground, or at the grocery store, but they don’t
get to see much of it either. Look around you, everything is labeled, packaged and branded in English (or another language if you live outside the US). From cereal boxes to toy boxes, our children rarely see the beautiful Arabic script emblazoned on things outside of their books or some Arabic toys. So why not bring some more Arabic into your view? We made it easier for you with two free printableswith labels of popular items around the house (download kitchen labels and bedroom labels). Print them out, let your child cut them out and then display the labels on the correct item. If they cannot read yet, be sure to stop and look at the labels whenever you can, pointing out the letters and enunciating the words. Have your child repeat the word and use it when you are speaking together as much as possible. It’s a great reminder for adults to speak in Arabic too!
Make Arabic art! From geometric art to Arabic calligraphy, you’ll find tons of ideas to engage your children (and to be honest, it’s fun for adults too) in a creative way and display their work prominently around the house. Arabic calligraphy coloring pages are all over the internet, just print and color! Use heavy cardstock and then frame your child’s work or display it in a special Arabic art corner in your home for a bigger visual impact. Find some ideas for creatively displaying your children’s art on our new Pinterest board.
Use books as art! Although adults are taught not to judge a book by its cover, who can convince a child not to be attracted to a colorful, beautifully illustrated book? When choosing books for our Maktabatee collection, we scrutinize the illustrations and visual elements as well as the story line. We love displaying the books prominently in our homes, especially where our children can see them frequently. They add a beautiful decorative touch and serve as a subconscious reminder of the existence of Arabic in our lives.
When it comes to teaching our children another language, the benefits are known, but the struggle is real. That has been my experience as a mother of two young boys, ages 3 and 5. When my parents immigrated to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., they feared that we would lose touch with the Arabic language. So they did everything in their power to maintain it. They enrolled my sisters and I in Arabic schools, they took us back to the Middle East every summer, and they spoke to us every day in Arabic. For them, it was natural but still challenging, as they were competing against everyone else in our lives who spoke English. Their hard work and good schooling paid off with my sisters and I learning to read, write, and speak in Arabic.
Today, as a parent myself, I have an added layer of difficulty-- getting myself to speak enough Arabic with my children since it doesn’t come as naturally to me as it did to my own parents. It’s an uphill battle, but one that I’m determined to take head on.
How? With a lot of personal effort and a little help from the Internet. There’s no question that the resources we have at our disposal today are beyond anything our own parents could have imagined. Don’t know the name of a particular animal in Arabic? Google translate will help. Looking for Arabic alphabet tracing worksheets? Pinterest to the rescue. Want to play an Arabic cartoon for the kids? YouTube videos galore.
But don't let that overwhelm you! Here are my top five tips for bringing more Arabic into your child’s everyday life:
1. Speak it.
You might not be perfect at it, you might not speak classical Arabic, but if you can speak Arabic, try to do it as much as possible with your children. If you are like me, you may have other languages spoken at home. Don’t let that stop you from trying to speak to your child in Arabic as much as possible. English comes so naturally to me, so it takes a significant awareness for me to tell myself to speak in Arabic when I am with my kids. Don’t be discouraged if you go off track! Even a few sentences a day here and there will help your child.
2. Read it.
Who doesn’t love to snuggle up with a parent and read a good book?
Books will introduce words that your children may not hear from you regularly or on a daily basis but are important in adding to their vocabulary. Don’t underestimate a child’s ability to understand unfamiliar words using images on the book or context clues. I’m always surprised that my children understand some words that I don’t use often. Hearing a book character speak in Arabic makes the language much more relatable and memorable for children. And seeing the Arabic word in the book will help as they move on to reading and writing the language themselves. We've handpicked our favorite Arabic books for you so you don't have to do all the work!
3. Play with it.
Children learn with all their senses. Adding a tactile element to your toolbox of Arabic learning is important. From alphabet blocks to flashcards, give your child a new way of experiencing the Arabic language. Use play dough to make the letters of the alphabet, or practice the letters in a sandbox (more ideas here).
4. Display it. The beauty of the Arabic script is undeniable. Most Arab homes will have some if not many decor items that include beautiful Arabic calligraphy. Children may not be able to read or recognize fancy script, but they will learn to appreciate it. You can also add kids themed Arabic art (check Etsy) or display the kids’ own Arabic arts and crafts prominently around the house. (More tips in our Arabic Around the Houseblog post).
5. Listen to it. Songs, apps, and short videos will help your child grasp how words sound, help them develop the pronunciation of letters, all while engaging them in a fun way. Stream the songs on your phone during a car ride and your kids will be repeating it in no time!