Before moving here, we just assumed that any kids we had would grow up speaking Arabic fluently. We found out pretty quickly that living in the part of Beirut we do, it was going to take a lot more work for them to pick up the language than just the community exposure.
As soon as people see our girls’ light eyes and hair, they speak to them in English or French and are generally surprised to find out that they do in fact understand Arabic. And even if I continue the conversation in Arabic, or prompt my kids to respond in Arabic, the conversation usually continues on in English.
Isla learned very quickly to tune out any Arabic around her, because chances were pretty high someone was going to repeat everything for her in English. This worked great for her… she’s a perfectionist, afraid of trying new things, shy and definitely does not enjoy being put on the spot. So for her to try out words in a language she knew she wasn’t as strong in was just not going to happen. Plus she never needed to try, because someone was always more than willing to jump in and ask her the same question or tell her the same story in English. So while her comprehension was decent, she had a really hard time composing sentences that weren’t just memorized phrases.
We’ve noticed huge progress in her Arabic in the past year and a half or so. School has helped for sure, and she also had a tutor last year who worked on her spoken Arabic (different from the Arabic she was learning in school). I think the biggest thing it gave her was confidence – that she actually does understand and she can speak and be understood – and she’s been using her language a whole lot more this past year than she has before. It also helps that there are a few situations she’s regularly in now where English is not really an option for her, and I’ve been surprised and how willing she has been to try to speak Arabic, even if it isn’t perfect.
Then there is Ruby. She and Isla couldn’t be more opposite personality wise and it’s been so interesting to see how this has affected second language development. Ruby could care less if what she is saying is wrong, she just wants to talk to people.
So if Isla didn’t know how to say something in Arabic, she just wouldn’t talk. Ruby however just says as much as she can in Arabic and then finishes the conversation in a very strangely accented English, which she thinks is Arabic. It’s hilarious and slightly embarrassing at times… We were in a shop the other day and Ruby was having a conversation with a nice old man. She got stuck though when he asked why she wasn’t in school. So she replied in Arabic, “because I…” and then switched to something that slightly resembled English but sort of sounded like she had her mouth stuffed full of marshmallows, “Ahhhh nooooot thruh yeeeaaas oooooooldd” (I not three years old.)
I started laughing, but how do you explain to an 80 year old man that your two year old actually thinks she’s speaking Arabic? Ruby just smiled at me and told me in English, “I telled him in Arabic that I not three yet.”
I’m actually glad that Ruby isn’t further along in her Arabic. It’s really nice that not everyone around can understand when she asks me loudly, “why is that lady old???”… but I do think that she’s going to jump into conversations much quicker than her sister did, just because she is willing to take the risk and try.