Language Learning, when you are not a Native Speaker

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart”

~ Nelson Mandela ~

Over the last couple of weeks, and since school has started again for the year, I have been continually asked, “What do we do to teach our children our minority language?”

This language, that is perhaps not our own but our partners language! A language we as a non-native speaker need to learn to speak before we can teach our children! The language we want to share as a family.

The first response that comes to a person’s mind when someone says, “I want to learn a language?” is “Oh! You need resources! I can help you with resources!”

In my chapter of “Raising the Global Mindset” book being released on 30 March 2021, I talk about Multicultural Family Problems. A part of which is ‘Making a family language plan‘.

Whilst collecting our resources we regularly forget when our emotions are so invested in the outcome to stop and ask ourselves some questions first?

  1. Why do you want to learn a family language/s?
  2. Do you speak the target language?
  3. Do you have people resources besides your partner that speak the language?
  4. If you don’t speak the language, how are you going to learn the language to teach it?
  5. Will you learn together at the same time as your child?
  6. Do you know how to start?
  7. Have you found all the resources you need?
  8. Do you know what to do with the resources you have?

Now let’s think… can you tell me in three sentences at most why you have started this journey?

For our family, our aim is: “

This for our family means our aim is Biliterate in two languages: English and Arabic. Our children have been taught both languages from birth. They have also learnt a smattering of other languages through neighbours and foreign language studies at school, however we remain consistent with our aim (biliterate in English and Arabic) and consider everything else a very useful extra.

Now, back to having a pile of resources and a look of astonishment and panic, as you look at that pile of resources for the first time wondering what to do. I remember that feeling well! A video…a tiny month-old-baby and…no idea at all about what to do!

I can remember creeping to the table, and picking up an “Iftah ya Simsim” (Arabic Sesame Street) DVD case, like I thought it might bite, and taking it to the DVD player. I don’t know how long I stared at the three disks in the box, until I opened it to discover more than one disk.

Eventually, I managed to put the DVD in to play that said “1” and sat on the floor with my daughter in my lap singing nursery rhymes from the subtitles. Feeling like a dill and thinking, “What is my baby going to understand from this?” Likewise, for the story in English I read her every night.

My husband subscribed to Arabic satellite TV so we could watch familiar cartoons in Arabic during the afternoon. Truthfully, in the beginning, I switched on the TV to English cartoons in the morning and Arabic cartoons in the night, so there was not a silent house whilst my daughter slept. Then when she had her floor exercise time, she had something to listen to besides my monologue about what we needed to do today. I also thought then that I could claim I was making an attempt at sharing both our languages with our daughter. That was my excuse! I did not actually know at the time it was true, and a useful tool for learning.

My aunty, who is a teacher and regularly works with children with hearing impairments, said to always keep the subtitles ON on the TV, so that print and sound/speaking become familiar together. Living overseas in Arabic speaking countries, signs are regularly bilingual in Arabic and English. In Australia, most signage is in English. A majority of the products bought have only English labels. So subtitles became a method of discovering print. Although, it could not be read – by either of us regularly. *Sigh*

To create other opportunities to explore print and letters I made a word wall. Well, at first we printed an alphabet chart. The alphabet chart was set up as a box for each letter and included:

  •  the Arabic letter ب
  • a picture of something starting with the letter 🏡
  • the name of the letter in English (baa)
  • the word related to the picture in Arabic ( بيت ), and
  • the word’s English transliteration (bayt).

When my daughter was little, I would read it to her to teach me. I printed baby size cards the same as the wall chart and we would have a game reading the word and finding the word on our wall chart. My husband regularly laughed at us but helped with our pronunciation when he was not at work.

Having your three year old tell you, “No Mama! You say it like ‘this’!” is a little disconcerting at first, but she was learning! I was learning! If I let her correct me, she took ownership of her languages. Whilst being told I should not let my child tell me I was wrong, I decided to teach her to do so in a respectful manner. “Mama, stop please!” followed by her saying the correct sentence.

The first time someone said in front of my then 4 year old daughter, “Why are you teaching her Arabic too? Everyone speaks English in Australia!” She piped up, “You cannot speak Arabic? Do you need me to help you learn it? I am a good teacher! Ask my Mama!”. This was how I knew letting her be my teacher too was the best decision for my family.

My tips for learning a family language, are:

  1. The best time to start learning your family language is…today!
  2. The best way to start for me was to choose just one thing and do it every day for a month. (Singing a song in the car on the way to the supermarket counts as one thing. Make it fun so you want to do it.)
  3. When it becomes a habit, add another thing as well.
  4. Only do something you enjoy.
  5. Don’t try and do everything at once.

This month’s goal is putting together a booklet called “Getting Started: a non-native speakers guide for Raising Bilingual Children – Arabic”.

It will include some ideas of where to find resources written in English to teach/learn Arabic with your child. Including some basic Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) daily used phrases. Hopefully, once the MSA version is complete, an edition including dialects can be added. Basically, it is the beginner notes I wish I had the day I started teaching Arabic to my daughter. I had five different Arabic language teachers in Australia, all from different dialects, and in some cases I do not know the standard word that would be understood by all even if it is not a commonly used word. It will just be a starting point. Notes to print and drop into a folder so you can add your own notes and keep them all together.

“To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the World!”

~ A Chinese Proverb ~

Have fun!

Learning while Laughing!

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