Stupid Americans

Stupid Americans

We didn’t have a car for our first two years in Beirut, which I would highly recommend for language learning… I have rarely met a taxi driver who isn’t chatty, and it’s a great way to practice your new language skills.

Even now that we have a car, I still use public transportation fairly often, and the conversations never cease to amuse me. I can only think of once when I was really uncomfortable with the way a conversation went – this particular driver was insistent that I take his phone number and call him if I ever met a blonde woman who would be interested in marrying him. Not because he cares about looks, he was quick to mention multiple times, but because he had a dream when he was young that he would have a blonde child, and so he’s certain his blonde wife is out there somewhere, he just needs help meeting her.

Most conversations revolve around religion, politics and whether the taxi driver should try to immigrate to the US. It’s rare to meet a driver who doesn’t have a relative in the States (“my brother’s wife’s sister is in Dearborn!”), and with the economic situation in Lebanon, many are looking outside of the country to give their children a fighting chance at a good future.

So we talk about the struggles of living cross culturally, what makes life in America easier, and whether Los Angeles or Michigan would be a better place for them to live. More often than not, I’m dispelling myths and combating stereotypes about life in America, and I can’t count the number of times the phrase “every country has it’s beauty and it’s issues” comes rolling off my tongue.

no offense, Michigan, but yeah, NO.

Recently I had an especially chatty driver. We talked a lot about his Italian girlfriend and his mom’s opinion of her and her cooking, why I felt it was important to have a conversation with the children tapping on our window trying to sell us toilet paper, and how superhero movies were definitely the best genre of film ever created. This guy was a real movie buff, which also clearly made him an expert on life in America. So he’d tell me about how it is in the States, I would gently correct or agree, and the conversation moved on to his service in the army.

And then, out of nowhere, he lobbed this one my direction. “Apologies for the strong language, but Americans are pretty stupid.”

Umm…okay….?

“Again, no offense at all, but Americans are pretty dumb. I mean, why, if you live in Tornado Alley, would you build a house out of wood?!? Look at this building,” he continued, pointing to a large concrete structure covered in glass windows, “if a tornado hit this, yes, the glass would break, but at least it would still be standing! But no! In America, you guys are like, ‘yes, my brother and mom both died in a tornado, but we are going to rebuild our house with wood!’ See! Stupid Americans! No offense of course.”

And for the first time in my life, a taxi driver rendered me completely speechless. Thanks, Bill Paxton.




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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?

TBT: Second English

TBT: Second English

TBT Post!

Because the promise I made to myself to blog once a week is apparently too hard to keep… instead of something new enjoy this randomly selected old post, originally published on March 21, 2014

beautiful feet: the blog version

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…

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Personalities and language learning

Personalities and language learning

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.

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.”  :)

Arabic, English and French, oh my!

Arabic, English and French, oh my!

Lebanese are known for being excellent linguists.  At the school Isla attends, they study English, French and formal Arabic starting at age 3.  It makes learning Arabic, in Beirut especially, difficult because so many people speak at least a little English.

Even though Isla was born in Lebanon and has lived here her whole life, her Arabic is pretty weak.  She understands quite a bit, but really only speaks memorized phrases at this point.  Even though we’ve asked our friends to speak Arabic to her, people see her blonde hair and go straight to English with her.  And when people do speak Arabic to her, she generally answers them – albeit correctly – in English.

We discovered this summer that Isla often tunes out when Arabic is being spoken… it’s like she thinks it’s not for her.  If you are speaking to her directly in Arabic, she will listen and respond.  But if someone is speaking to a group she is in, even if it’s just two or three other kids, she ignores it.  I wonder if she even hears it or if she’s just gotten so used to being spoken to in English only that she just waits for the more familiar language.  We’re expecting (and hoping!) that after a few months in school, this will change.

It has been fun to see her grow and experiment with all the different languages that are floating around in her little brain.  It’s cute when she tries to make an Arabic word plural by adding an “s” like we do in English.  Or an “ing” onto the end of an Arabic verb to tell us what she is doing at that moment.  Right now her big thing is to make up her own language.  She’s speaking gibberish, but takes the time to translate for us what each word means.

Ruby’s got her own little language as well.  It’s quite adorable, although a bit messy…

Umbrella, Mom…. same difference.

Umbrella, Mom…. same difference.

Yesterday, one of the girls came home from school saying that she had to take in a picture of her mom.  Sort of makes sense because Mother’s Day is next week – they are probably making some kind of card or craft (although as a Mom, would I really want a craft with my OWN picture on it?  That’s beside the point, I guess).

But when I opened her agenda, it was clearly written in Arabic “Bring a picture of an umbrella.”  So here I am having a long conversation with a six year old, trying to figure out why she thinks she needs a picture of her mom when the teacher wrote umbrella.  (In my defense, they are studying the weather right now, so it’s not completely far-fetched that she’d need a picture of something weather-related… such as… an umbrella!)  Well, she couldn’t explain to me why it said umbrella but it meant mom, so I went to ask Mona.

She started cracking up and explained to me that “picture of an umbrella” actually means passport photos in formal Arabic.  Who knows why, but that’s what it means.

Kind of funny, but what’s really funny is that several months ago, my other two first-graders also had written in their agendas to bring a picture of an umbrella.  So I had them look through magazines, cut out a picture of an umbrella and take it to school.  They both came back the next day saying they didn’t need an umbrella picture, but with no other explanation, I just let it drop.  I can only imagine what their teachers were thinking…..

C’mon, Nicolette, it’s been 3.5 years…. surely I’ve made my million mistakes by now!