The vast world full of different cultures, languages, and ethnicities has become one small world with the internet and easy access to travel. I’m a first-generation Palestinian Canadian Muslim raising two children and trying every day to preserve our native language, Arabic. That could sound like a simple task for an Arabic-speaking family, but the reality of that is vastly different. Where we live in Canada, French and English are the two official languages. Arabic, on the other hand, is divided into dialects and classical or Quranic. At home, we speak two different dialects plus three other languages.
Who doesn’t want their children to speak multiple languages? Speaking many languages is a great skill, but the right question is: How can one preserve and nurture their native language?
Examine your Intentions
Let’s start with the reason behind our actions. We have to ask ourselves why we want or don’t want our children to learn a language or multiple ones? For us, Arabic is the mother tongue that my husband and I grew up speaking. Also, it’s the language of the Quran that we want to pass on to our children. We want them to be able to communicate with family and relate to the cultures they come from. A language isn’t only the words we speak, but it’s a whole culture. It’s an identity.
Having said that, this goal isn’t easy to achieve when you live in an environment that doesn’t encourage it. When a child spends more than 8 hours outside their home speaking a different language from their mother tongue, when does she have the time to speak it? Think about it. To preserve and learn a language, we have to speak it. Arabic can even be a minority language in an Arab country, too, if the child is sent to an international school for example, or spends a lot of time online or watching TV.
But why preserve a mother tongue, you’re asking? A mother tongue is a language spoken at home from birth. It’s the one that connects the child to the parents which makes it the child’s personal, social, and cultural identity. Some parents will put a mother tongue aside for their children to learn a new language, most likely a common language that will “help them in their future.” Even if that is a helpful thing to do, it should not come at the expense of their mother tongue. Also, studies have shown that a strong foundation in one’s mother tongue will help a child gain fluency in other languages.
Connect Rather than Correct
Now let’s think about an important component of language learning - making a connection to the language. We must acknowledge that a child who doesn’t connect to a language will not want to learn it or speak it. If this is the language that’s used to always correct the child or even the language they feel “forced” to learn after so many hours of “learning” at school, then it would explain the poor connection they have with it.
Many parents and caregivers understand the challenge and want to do something about it, which is a great start. When I had my children, I came to know about many amazing preschool programs offered by the government. The programs that every child needs to connect with their caregiver, and the culture using the languages surrounding them. I was fortunate enough to be part of many of these programs. On the other hand, I looked for something similar in Arabic and didn’t find any and that’s when the mom in me shined. Moms will try to create whatever is missing for their children. The fun component of learning our minority language was missing. We, as a community, became focused on the overall goal without working on the way to get to it. We want our children to learn our mother tongue, but are stuck with one method that doesn’t work for most children.
Start the Connection from Home
The first step is to know your child. This one might sound funny but it's key when connecting with children. When you know what they like and what their interests are, you already have half the job done. We at home thrive on “living” books - a hallmark of the Charlotte Mason educational philosophy that recommends books that engage the reader into learning about a specific subject of interest. Leave curriculum books aside when trying to connect. Read books that will cater to your child’s interests and discuss them together. Reading aloud has proven to be miraculous in our home. The most amazing part about living books is the amount of new things I’ve been learning with my children. We also follow our readings with more research about a specific subject. And that’s how you can connect with them over something they enjoy learning about.
Games are also a fun way to connect. Don’t just stick to educational ones, there’s also benefit from entertainment based games as well. Another of our valuable traditions are nature walks which connect us to nature and to each other. There are various activities that a family can do together to connect over a language.
It’s a great addition to find a community that can share this interest with you. Try to connect with family, friends or even strangers that speak the language. Create your own events and encourage families to join. Here in Toronto, we started a program called Fusحa in Nature. This program aims to encourage children to speak and enjoy Arabic in Nature.
Connect Rather than Correct
Don’t forget to encourage children when using the language and know when to and when not to correct them. Remember we want to work on the connection first. A child that’s connected to a language will always go back to it to learn more even after they grow up. Also remember that it’s never too late to learn a language and enjoy learning with your little ones. My Arabic has improved a hundred times more since I had children, alhamdulillah!
Parents that tell me my child doesn’t like learning Arabic sound like telling me their child doesn’t like eating. Will you keep them without food? Or will you try and look up different recipes to convince them to eat? Let’s focus on nurturing the brain and the soul of our children the same way we are focused on their physical health. Let’s listen to our children and their needs and build that strong connection to them that nurtures and preserves our native languages.
Learning a language isn’t only done in a classroom or on a desk but there are endless ways of doing it. I always say and will always say it - we want our children to love the language because if they do, they will learn it and preserve it!
Inas Abusheikha is passionate about children's education and morally-centered entertainment. She is a popular teacher of online classes for Sound Vision’s Adam’s World Club and the founder of Fusحa, an Arabic educational kids show that aims to nurture early literacy and language development through art, music, and play! She also produces beautiful flash cards in multiple languages that are available at her Etsy store at https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/Fus7a. Inas Abusheikha lives with her husband and two children in Toronto.