Nurturing Native (& Foreign) Language Skills

Nurturing Native (& Foreign) Language Skills

“How do you do it?”

I get this question so much from mothers whose attempts to pass down a native language to their children have been met with resistance. They are amazed that my children are fluent in Spanish despite being born and raised in the U.S. The truth is I am also struggling. It is a daily uphill battle that can only be overcome by prayers and keeping our eyes on the prize at the summit. Being bilingual or multilingual has huge advantages when it comes to cognitive development, academic performance, literacy, and in the workforce. In Parents Magazine, Priscilla Blossom highlights some of the biggest benefits of learning a second language as a child. Mainly, it “encourages empathy,” “boosts brain function,” and provides an “academic advantage.” (April 2021)

So much has been written about the impact of bilingualism and multilingualism on an individual’s success. But, just how can we successfully teach our children while living in a majority English-speaking country? There are a few ways. 

First and foremost, just like when it comes to other forms of worship, we must purify our intentions. Anything that is beneficial for us and can be used to please Allah can be a form of worship. Nurturing a native or heritage language can fall into this category by further strengthening family ties, improving our livelihood, and spreading the message of Islam. It is also interesting to note that many well-known companions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, were bilingual like Abu Huraira, Zaid ibn Thabit, and Salman al Farsi. 

After we make our intention clear, we should develop a plan. The next steps are what I recommend based on research and trial and error.

1. Start early (or start now).

The earlier you start your child off with another language, the better. (There is an exception here for English, and I will explain that later.) Decide on your target language, the one you want your child to learn. As soon as you bring your little bundle of joy home, start speaking to them in that language. This will ensure they are able to recognize its sounds and nuances. Talk, read, and sing to them in that language. Once they are older, you can also introduce them to television shows, audiobooks, and books in your target language.  

I have a secret formula that I learned while studying world language education and teaching my children that I will share with you. If there is one thing you remember from this article, let it be this: 

The  keys to early language acquisition are reading, rhyme, and repetition. 

2. Get other caregivers on board.

We have all heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Equally, teaching our children another language or preserving their native language takes teamwork. If you have a spouse, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and/or other caregivers who speak the target language, let them know how important it is for you and your child that they become bilingual or multilingual. Have them provide that immersive environment and implement all the strategies in this article. Everyone must play by the rules, which leads to the following step.

3. Set a rule, and follow it yourself.

“Spanish inside, English stays outside,” is what I have been telling my children since they were toddlers. There is no English at home between family members. Ever. Although this may seem strange or even cruel to some people, my children went straight to preschool or Kindergarten without knowing a word of English. Once they started school it only took them a couple of weeks before they were speaking English like pros, and they did not have to take special ESOL classes. Really. It can be done. 

Our children will be exposed to English their entire lives, whether it is by overhearing us speak it or by listening to people outside. Delaying formal introduction to English does not mean they will fall behind their peers. Focus on your target language and build a solid foundation, to avoid it being lost once English is introduced (outside). 

The native-language-at-home-only model will almost guarantee that your child will retain the target language, but we must be strict about following the rule ourselves. It helps if other caregivers also speak the language. If not, then the rule can be modified to “target language only with X and Y, and other language (or English if it cannot be avoided) only with Z.” As our children get older, they will question and even try pushing limits, especially when we are not practicing what we preach. It cannot be overstated that consistency is key!

4. Avoid and prohibit combining languages in conversation.

If you have ever seen the cartoon show “Dora the Explorer,” then you will understand the meaning of Spanglish. This combination of Spanish and English is what is called a hybrid language. And now a confession: Spanglish is my archenemy! It lurks in television shows, books, songs, and slang, and even though I hate it,  I even end up using it sometimes. There are other hybrid variations out there like Arabish, Urdish, Hinglish, etc. The problem with hybrid language is that it is a slippery slope on your quest to reach the pinnacle of multilingualism. 

Although it seems like it would be helpful to, let’s say, watch a show like Dora or Handy Manny, in which the main characters teach Spanish words in English conversation, therein is the problem. It fails to teach children proper usage, grammar, and sentence structure in the target language (Spanish, in this case). It is not the best method for language acquisition and can be counterproductive. Your child will eventually start combining the two languages by stringing together the few vocabulary words they know with their stronger language, which will inevitably be English if they are living in the U.S. To be frank, hybrid language is impractical for everyday use, and, to me, it sounds ridiculous. In the case of language learning, segregate your targets; separate, but equal works well here. 

5. Create cultural connections.

Language and culture go hand in hand. When I was a high school Spanish teacher at a public school, the textbooks I taught from focused on a different country per unit. This integrated approach focused on geography and social studies, along with Spanish, and helped students make a connection between the language they were learning and its native speakers. 

Teaching our children to be proud of their heritage (without being arrogant!) is important for their self-esteem and to foster a strong identity. Connect their language with lessons about the culture it represents. Watch documentaries, shows, and movies in the native language that showcase cultural traditions. And, if they are learning a foreign language, they can build empathy and appreciation for people of other backgrounds. 

Our many languages are a testament to the majesty of our Creator. Allah says in the Qur’an: “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed, in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (Surah Ar-Rum 30:22) As Muslims, we learn Arabic by default, even if it is limited to prayers, supplication, dhikr, and for reading the Qur’an. Alhamdulillah, we are already one step ahead of most people in this country. By encouraging our children to learn and preserve other languages, we help them become vessels for this wonderful gift from Allah. 

Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six. She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, Inc., a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam and culture in Spanish. She is also the Spanish content coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America’s WhyIslam Project and has also written, illustrated, and published a dozen children’s books . Díaz lives with her husband and family in Maryland.


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