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Speaking Multiple Languages at Home

Being an international family certainly has its challenges. 10 years ago when MarocBaba and I were just starting our life together we worked through a lot of issues.

From overcoming immigration hurdles to being newlyweds, new parents, starting our careers, and finding our way as 20 something’s it seemed there was always something lurking around the next corner.

Chances are if you’re in a similar relationship you’re familiar with these challenges. While we’ve come into our own as adults and parents we still have challenges. One took center stage just this weekend.

I have shared our reasons for moving to Morocco and the biggest one was so that our children would learn Arabic. We face an uphill battle with this goal and it’s something we work at daily.

The boys didn’t speak more than 2 or 3 words in Arabic two years ago. Today they are mostly fluent. But, we know this can easily slip away. The last thing we want is for them to lose what they have gained. In Morocco I am the only one that speaks to them in English. Everyone else uses Arabic. This is not by design as much necessity.

When we came to visit the US (as we do each summer) a few weeks ago their day shifted from having Arabic around all the time and only us to speak to English, to the exact opposite.

MarocBaba has kept talking to them in Arabic and they are pushing back by answering in English only. I’ve encouraged him not to give up and stick with it. They need to keep hearing Arabic.

This weekend when we were at my grandparents my grandma got indignant when we used Arabic because she doesn’t understand it. I explained that what MarocBaba had said in English he had just repeated in Arabic. She commented every time Arabic was used.

This isn’t an easy situation and I see a lot of long term problems.

Raising multilingual kids in a society that is monolingual is not easy. I think this year the very stark contrast between the environment for bilingualism in Europe/North Africa and the United States was even greater. We have gotten very used to using 2, 3, or 4 languages regularly. I can understand and be understood in French, Arabic, and Spanish.

I also know a few key words in German, Portuguese, and Italian. It’s really normal to use any of these at any time on any day. This is just not reality in the US. English only is alive and well and if you do speak another language you’re the odd one out. (Note: this is different if you live in a large, international city like New York or Los Angeles.)

Another problem is having or not having a strong support system in place. In order to foster maintaining a language children need to feel comfortable using their languages. If they’re always being told to stop using it by friends or other family members they will be ashamed and stop. Breaking doww this barrier once it is in place is very difficult.

A final issue is balancing language priorities. It’s true most multilingual children don’t learn languages at the same rate. Some are stronger in different areas with each language. For example my kids strengths are different. One child reads better in French than Arabic

They are different people and will naturally learn different languages in different ways. Each has his strengths and weaknesses. I don’t push them one way or the other because I know once they lose interest it’s not something that can be easily forced.

School supplies for Moroccan elementary school

We wrestle daily with the fear that by schooling the children in Arabic and French that they will fall behind in English. To be honest, by the end of the day I can’t bring myself to make them do any English work.

Their school day begins at 6:30am and they don’t get home until 5:30. After doing homework, eating dinner, taking a shower and having a little time to relax there isn’t time for more work. Instead we try to read in English at night. I am hoping this time to plan in more English writing and solo reading.

I’ve signed M up for an online bookclub that includes reading and writing. K hasn’t learned to read in English yet but we are constantly trying to find something that will engage and make him want to learn – he’s not the kind of kid you can force to do anything.

While all of my family is fearful of this happening, I have to trust my instinct and research to know what we’re doing is right. This is not a short term goal, this is a lifelong goal. I know our kids are behind in English BUT they will come out stronger and be more well rounded as they get older.

For parents who are, or who want to use multiple languges at home – do it. You owe it to your kids an to your heritage. Around the world it’s normal and expected that children speak multiple languages, so that as adults they’re able to do the same. Trust your parenting instincts, get plenty of support around you, and do it!

Are you parenting multilingual kids? What struggles do you face and how are you working through them?

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Dr. Khan

Wednesday 20th of January 2016

Aa! I am a mom from Pakistan. We speak pashto at home which is local language of our place KPK, n also speak urdu which is Pakistan's national language. My husband's pashto, belonging to a tribal pathan tribe, is a bit different n hard and so he doesnt use that version of pashto n i m afraid that my kids wont be able to speak their paternal pashto wen they grow up bcz they dont hear it. My point is that i want my kids to learn english but we dont give much exposure to tv or any screen time to our kids bcz of religion n its hazard (btw i am a doctor) anyways.So they dont have anyone speaking english to them, though their father n i are good at english academically (but not colloquially bcz we dont speak so not very fluent either) n also in our culture english has haunted people to the extent that english words have incarcerated the normal lingos of any area here in Pakistan as a fashion. but still being colloquial n adopting the accent of english is wat a language deserves. In a nutshell, can u plz suggest how can i make them proficient in english level since its the language of our school media mostly n internationally powerful n i want my kids to be multilingual n have fluency in english wenever they need to use this language wen they grow up inshaallah.Any ideas? (after english rather alongwith english my target is arabic inshaallah once my kids start learning Quran pak inshaallah, i love being multilingos, i cudnt but i pray my kids do, my girl is 5 n a half n boy 2 yrz mashaallah. ) Jazakillah khair

Amanda Mouttaki

Wednesday 27th of January 2016

Hello! I think that for young kids a good way to start really is to expose them to media to hear how it sounds. This could be educational games (there are soooo many for tablets etc) and/or educational TV shows like Sesame Street. I find that the biggest challenge is often getting used to hearing how English should sound from native speakers. Games are a great way to get the engaged. You also might consider hiring someone who speaks English well to come once or twice a week to play games and do fun activities to help them start learning the basics. The more fun you can make it the more they'll want to participate.

Leyla Giray Alyanak

Saturday 15th of August 2015

When I was little we spoke French, Turkish and Spanish at home. With my mother it was French, and with my father, Turkish. Always. I'd switch languages in mid-sentence if I was talking to one or the other. I didn't learn English until my teens. My parents' philosophy was to place my brother and I in local schools wherever we lived (they traveled a lot). So in Tehran they threw me into an Iranian school even though I didn't speak a word. They did the same in Madrid when we first moved there. And I learned. Within a few months I'd be fluent in whatever language. This has had a few rather major impacts on my life: I've become utterly adaptable when it comes to languages - a new language is just that, a new language, not a major hurdle; I've been able to glide in and out of cultures easily; I've had a distinct advantage in the job market, more than once; and there isn't a day that goes by when I don't thank my parents, who are no longer alive, for that great gift they gave me.

Fast forward a few years and my brother and his wife are living down the road, here in France where I live now. Their daughters, my nieces, go to French school. They are little French girls. When I visit I insist we speak English. They grumbled and tried the talking back in French thing but I stuck to my guns. Even my brother became impatient with me. Then three years ago he moved with his family to the USA. The girls were placed in an American school for the first time - they'd spoken English with me but that was it. No classes, no reading and writing in English. Their first school year was tough. The second year less so. The third year they were both on the honor roll.

So yes, languages. All I can say is whatever the hardships now, someday, when they're chattering back and forth from Arabic to English, they'll say, "Thank you Mom!"


Tuesday 11th of August 2015

How did you learn Arabic, any tips? My daughter is very mixed, some languages that i would like her to know little about as well is dreng and arabic. But Also I Can only say hi, how are you, yes, no, i want, i am, etc. In these languages. The absolut minimum and it seems like even that is slipping away. I love travelling and would Also like my daughter to hear these languages, but What Can i do when i do not even speak Them myself? Any tips for a min to learn new languages? I am a single mum to a small baby, my little princess, so i do not have all the time In the World for study. I really like Reading your blog, it is very interesting.:)

Amanda Mouttaki

Sunday 16th of August 2015

Truthfully I learned it from living here. I speak survival Arabic, I couldn't hold a long conversation about politics or discuss a book but I can speak enough to get across what I need and hold a very basic conversation. I can however understand almost everything. My best advice is to have her listen as much as possible. There are lots of cartoons and other shows on YouTube in Arabic and Darija. Sometimes I only let the kids watch if they do so in whichever language I designate. It helps me as much as it helps them. I think the more you use it the easier it becomes. It's certainly not easy and I wish there was a magic fast way to learn!


Sunday 9th of August 2015

So glad to come across blog every time I need some insight on multicultural living. I recently got married to a handsome moroccan man. We met through his uncle to help me with French originally, and feelings started to develop over time...now here we are! In love and happy :) it's awesome to read the post, because this is a small concern with our children. My first language is english, his is darija, and the language that he and I communicate in is french! I will just pray that we don't confuse our children insha'allah. Lol


Friday 31st of July 2015

Hmmm. I am fully trilingual in English, French and Spanish, comfortable in Mandarin and able to converse in Portuguese and Italian. It is hard work maintaining it, despite living in a bilingual city, but the advantages are huge. Pease don't be discouraged by minor setbacks, although you probably will want to have someone in the family explain things to your grandma. People living in multilingual/multicultural locations understand these things better than do most of those living unilingual lives. Learning languages well requires a degree of encouragement and discipline that can be hard to grasp for those who have not had the experience. Two anecdotes: 1) My trilingual godson grew up speaking three languages: his father spoke English to him, his mother and her relatives spoke Cantonese, and he went to a Mandarin pre-school. Each year he travelled with his parents from Hong Kong to the US to see relatives there and had a complete immersion in English when he was there. But the pressure from the American side of the family seemed to me to influence his Mom to switch to English whenever they were in the US. The languages all fell into place in time, but his Cantonese was never as strong as you might have expected and his parents had to work hard to make sure that he used it - despite being surrounded by it in Hong Kong. 2) One day, decades ago, I was riding the streetcar home to Toronto's Little Italy, seated just ahead of a mother and her 7 year old son. She spoke to him only in Italian, he resolutely refused to answer in anything but English. She never lost her patience and never switched to English. I suspect that the problem was that her son already had come to feel that to be heard speaking a language different from most of those around him might mark him negatively. It probably took him another 20 years to recognize the benefits of speaking more that one language. Your sons will benefit deeply from their multilingual exposure.