Monday, April 19, 2010

The Curse of the Multi-Language Family

So, I met a lovely lady recently whom I have known on-line for about 6 months but had not previously met in real life. We were chatting and she mentioned this "unusual" problem she was having with her son. It is not, however, an unusual problem at all. Her problem is that her son, who was raised for art of his upbringing in the US and then moved here has a challenge. His Arabic skills are not terribly good. No that isn't the problem. The problem is that his English is heavily accented and perhaps not as strong as she would like. I was able to tell her, in no uncertain terms, that this problem isn't unusual at all.

Now, in some ways I'm blessed. The Beans' English skills are at age level, their accent is impeccable (unless speaking to their Arabic-speaking classmates), and their vocab is excellent. That's the blessing. However, Arabic is a struggle. While we live in a place where Arabic is the community language, our little home-community language is still English. So the kids, whose Arabic is improving dramatically, are still behind. And this highlights the two scenarios that I've seen...

First you have families like ours who retain English in all ways and struggle with Arabic. Then I see alot of families who get very good Arabic skills, but their English suffers. At times, it feels like true bilingualism is a myth. I know it isn't, but sometimes it feels like it is. Very few families seem to be truly able to make it work. Which brings me back to my new friend. Part of me wonders if her approach isn't why the English is slipping.

Let me explain, the Beans (as mentioned above) tend to speak to their friends who are native Arabic speakers in heavily accented English. Basically, they sound just like their friends. Their grammar is still correct, but their accent is very pronounced. Each and every time, I correct them. I'm that mean Mom you see out in the world. When my kids start speaking with an accent, I stop them and make them repeat whatever they wee saying properly. I also remind them that their friends will be better helped if they work with them on gaining a better accent instead. These days I don't even have to tell them what they're doing wrong. I simply say "accent please" and they repeat whatever they had just said properly.

I only wish that Arabic were so easy to fix. I have started trying to let them hear me trying to speak Arabic more. I figure if they know that Mommy is trying, they are more likely to. I figure modeling good behavior is always a plus, right? At any rate, I think this oft-experienced problem is very interesting. Anyone else with thoughts on it?

Happy Duality!


At 3:13 AM , Blogger sheeshany said...

Interesting read :).
I come from a background that "fuels" this :).

I`m a Jordanian with Chechen roots, I remember how hard it was to speak Chechen @ home, Arabic @ school, and English (in-between) sort of say.

I guess what helped me out was the constant "rules" about when to speak this and when to speak that.
Learning is a magical thing indeed; the 3 languages mingle with me quiet well now and I`m starting to apply the same thing on my 3 year-old kid.

Thanks for sharing,

At 3:15 AM , Anonymous kinzi said...

Oh blessed one, difficult dealing with these curses!

I think the fruit of bilingualism doesn't show until later on in development.

You are consistent, and that is good, it will ensure the accent for English is maintained. What a battle in both languages!

At 4:21 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Let me tell you that it is not a myth! I moved to france from denmark when 5 and sister 13. I learned french very fast, ok i struggle a little with my written Danish, but I don't have an accent whatsoever when I speak Danish or French. It took my sis a little bit of time, but she speaks as good French as me and has even a stronger accent from the region where we used to live... we have always spoken danish at home and french at school and with friends. It'll come don't think about it. My sister even managed a A+ in spoken german for her A levels...

At 5:12 AM , Blogger Tamara said...

I was raised in a bi-lingual family, Serbian-Arabic and since no one else -well almost- spoke Serbian, I was better at Arabic than on Serbian. but as I grew up and gave more effort to Serbian I got better. since mom speaks Arabic it was just easy to replace a word I did not know with an Arabic word :) I picked up English and other languages faster than my pears so there definitely a plus for the bi-lingual families. so give it time your beans will eventually give more effort to Arabic.

At 9:09 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Welcome Haitham and thanks for sharing your experience. What a great gift you're giving your son, keep up the great work.

Kinz, the fruit shows now and later I think. Especially when I hear ButterBean speaking French and that amazing accent comes through, definite fruits already. Just not always the ones I want to taste ;), teehee.

Babs, welcome to my blog (and Amman). I know it's not totally a myth, my German rommie in college had absolutely no accent in either language. But, she does seem to be the exception rather than the rule... ;).

Tamara, we're definitely seeing the great accents in other languages with ButterBean. She picks up French like a little sponge. And the one thing we most definitely have is time ;). We're not going anywhere and the kids improve in Arabic every single day...

At 4:36 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Isn't shocking when you realize that your fully American accented kids have this closet 'Arabic' English accent from school? The first time I heard them read out loud in this 'accent' I was floored. What are you doing? I said and my son, who totally knew what he was doing had this wicked little grin on his face. They are so smart, MashAllah.

At 3:59 PM , Blogger Trishy518 said...

I think you are right when you said, if they see you trying they will try to! My godfather is Moroccan and I know sometimes it is difficult to truely understand sometimes. I think in time thought, the goals of the language will be met. :)

At 6:23 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an interesting post.I teach at an International School and we have full language immersian.So, I've noticed this with all my students: whether US born or foreign nationals.
Of note however, is that I've noticed the same type of situation in English. I have several British students. One afternoon, a British student asked if he could use his cell phone in my room to call his mother (the hallway was too loud). I have taught this child for 6 months and he has never spoken with a British accent. He called his mother and it was as if he was a different kid- the accent was so thick, and not only that, but he used words such as "pardon" instead of the US colloquial "what?". I cracked up!

At 11:08 AM , Anonymous Malli said...

Hey MommaBean,

Weve been here for almost a year. My son has kept his English, he came with a smacking Aussie accent but now he has picked up an American one.

My daughters don't attend a bilingual school yet and since we are at the inlaws they have lost all their English :(. They Understand everything I say but refuse to answer me in English. We're heading home for a few months so Im hoping the girls will pick it up again.

In my parents household we werent allowed to speak English when we got back from school we had to speak Arabic. Im hoping to enforce this rule when we are out on our own.


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