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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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