The 4th language

The 4th language

Lebanon is no doubt a multilingual society. In a lot of ways, it’s different from other countries with multiple official languages because there is not much separation between them. It’s not uncommon at all to hear two or three languages used by the same person in the same sentence. It goes against everything you’ve ever read about language learning (in children especially), makes learning to speak Arabic difficult, and I have my theories on how it effects a child’s overall language development and communication skills, but that’s for another post.

I love that my children are surrounded by and exposed to so many languages. English is for sure their first and strongest language. They also speak Lebanese Arabic (with varying degrees of success), and learn formal Arabic and French in school. The girls have recently discovered that French is a secret language they can use in our house when they don’t want Mom or Dad to understand. This makes me both proud and absolutely livid when they start whispering to one other, plotting away in French… usually when I’m in the middle of a lecture or meting out some (well-deserved, of course) punishment.

But then we have their 4th language. We first noticed it a few months after Isla started school way back when… but thought that she was just mimicking her friends while retelling us a story that happened during her day. But, no. We have now decided that this is a full on language, that we (at first begrudginly, but now lovingly) call “School English.”

because apparently you can’t share whatsapp voice messages… so a video of it playing will have to do

I discovered to my horror that this is how Isla talks to everyone at school – friends and teachers and janitors – when we went to an open house and she raised her hand to answer a question. At first we tried to correct it, but then realized that she was communicating in a way that she felt she would be best understood… thick accent, wonky grammar and all. So we’ve embraced it now as our children’s newest language. It’s amazing to see how fluidly they can all three switch between English and school English, depending on who they are talking to. Even Luka, who is only a few months into his first year of school, is getting a good grasp on it.

Curious if this is more pronounced because of our context… where our kids are spending the majority of their school day being taught their first language by non-native speakers… or if it’s a pretty typical TCK trait?

Lost in Translation – religious sentiments

Lost in Translation – religious sentiments


It’s not uncommon for vehicles to be sporting some sort of phrase.  Often a tribute to a martyr or a phrase defining one’s driving style take over a back windshield.  Probably most common, however, are the religious sentiments….


Second English

Second English

Even though she was born and raised in Lebanon, Isla’s first and strongest language is English.

Honestly, we expected her to be both fluent in English and Arabic by this time.  We do live, after all, in an Arabic speaking country, and both her Daddy and I speak Arabic (though not fluently… yet! :))

There are two main reasons her English is much stronger.  One, Beirut.  English is so prevalent here, and Isla is clearly a foreigner, so people just assume she doesn’t speak Arabic.  Even though we insist that people use Arabic so that she can learn, they rarely do.  So her Arabic input has never been high enough.  When someone asks her a question in Arabic, she replies in English and they understand her, it just reinforces to her that she doesn’t actually need Arabic.

The second reason is her personality.  She is shy and she’s a perfectionist, two character traits that make learning a language very difficult.  Caleb and I both attribute our relative success at learning Arabic to the fact that we weren’t afraid to just go out and speak, knowing we would make a million (and more!) mistakes.  But Isla wouldn’t even try to speak unless she knew she could say it perfectly, and even once she was sure, she was often too shy to talk.

While being in school has helped her a lot, most of the Arabic that she was speaking from school was Fussha.  So a good friend of ours has been tutoring her in Lebanese Arabic once a week.  It’s made an amazing difference, more in her confidence than anything else.  She’s much more comfortable speaking Arabic, which means she uses it more, which means she gets better and better.

Getting a good base in a second language makes it easier to learn a third and even fourth language.  I’m amazed at how good her French accent is, although she really only knows phrases and songs that she’s learned at school.

I also die every time she speaks school English.  Somehow her brain has differentiated between the English she hears at home and the English she uses at school, and her accent changes accordingly.  I don’t know if she’s even cognizant of it, but recently her school English has been getting stronger and stronger.  We’ve tried correcting her pronunciation a few times, but at this stage in the game it’s not worth the fight.  She’ll figure it out eventually when she goes through her “what do you mean I’m not actually Lebanese!?!” identity crisis at some point.

For now, we just enjoy listening to her speak English, Arabic, a bit of French and “second English.”  :)

Hi, kifak, ça va?

Hi, kifak, ça va?

Having conversations in Beirut involves a unique mix of Arabic, English and even French.  It makes becoming fluent in Arabic in this city quite difficult… although it does make communicating easier.  People don’t even blink if you insert an English word in the middle of an Arabic sentence – which is generally what I do when I don’t know the word or want to be really precise.  I even find myself using Arabic filler words when I am speaking in English.  “Ay, she’s really cranky today, li2anna she didn’t sleep well last night.”  If I was the only person doing this, it would be weird, but it’s a very common way of speaking.  Even our pastor or newscasters do it.

But sometimes it causes problems.  Like when my fifth graders were studying the circulatory system yesterday.  I was explaining the way oxygen is transported through our bodies and in the process did a little language mixing without even thinking, thus communicating to the girls that when our blood carries oxygen to our cells… it kills us!

Language mistake number 3,498,013… check!