Arabic Language Maintenance Starts at Home

Arabic textbooks, Arabic language children's books, and a flashcard with a family member's name on it

“How to Teach Your Baby to Read,” Arabic language children’s books, and a flashcard with a family member’s name on it.

H. A. Rehm

Ruqiyo Musa is conducting a case study of her children’s language acquisition. Musa, who is fluent in Somali, Arabic, and English, feels confident that her children will be able to communicate in English and Somali. But she is concerned that their opportunities to learn Arabic are limited. Musa is determined to equip her children with Arabic literacy and fluency.

What does your research consist of?

I’m teaching my children Arabic, so I try to talk to them in Arabic most of the time. I use this book called “How to Teach Your Baby to Read,” which suggests creating flashcards with the names of family and things around the house. We also use story books that I read to them at nap times. We have posters with the Arabic numbers and letters.  I have them watch educational YouTube videos in Arabic, and they get to hear Arabic radio at least three times a week. So far, it’s going okay. [My son] is picking up a lot. He understands everything I’m saying. Sometimes he responds in Arabic; a lot of times he responds in Somali.

Tell me about the participants.

The participants are my son, who is going to be three years old in June, and my daughter, who is one year and three months right now (April 2013). She’s not speaking yet, but she understands a lot of the things I’m saying.

Why did you choose to do this research?

I always wanted to teach my children the Arabic language, so this was the perfect opportunity for me to see how well I can do it while I’m assessing myself at the same time…I’m reading research about raising children who are bilingual, the best ways to help them, and the benefits of it. This just gave me a push into something that I already wanted to do, before I even had kids. I’m still learning a lot about it.

What will your children gain by learning Arabic?

I feel like it’s the dream of every Muslim parent to have their child both read and write Arabic, because then they’ll be able to understand the Qur’an. They wouldn’t rely on anyone else for translating for them. Many parents have their children attend a weekend madrassa to learn how to read and write Arabic language, but I think about 90 percent of the time, they do not understand the meaning. Of course, being able to read the Qur’an is a big deal, and being able to memorize it; understanding it is an advantage.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?

The hardest part is finding materials to use. I tried to find books from the library, but they didn’t have much, so I ended up just ordering some online. Another challenge is how to do it. I’m not able to speak to them in Arabic 100 percent like I wanted, because I myself lost a lot of the Arabic vocab. I have looked for a family whose kids speak Arabic so we can have play dates with them, but I haven’t been able to locate such families [who are] available to meet. I’m the only one who talks to him in Arabic, so he only associates it with me, not with anyone else…it’s a challenge. He’s not going to become fluent if he doesn’t use it more often.

Can you see progress?

I don’t get to see a lot of [my daughter’s] input. Recently she just started responding to my commands, like, “Take this to Grandma,” or “Bring me my phone,” since she just started walking, but before that it was just me giving it to her, just speaking in Arabic …it was just one way.

So her ability to walk lets her demonstrate her comprehension?

Yes! I was excited to see that. I thought, wow, she actually understands what I’m saying! And [my son] is making a lot of progress. We made about 40 flashcards with names and things around the house, like the curtains, the couch, the carpet, and he can read 80% of them. I can just show it to him, and he’ll tell me what it is. When we started, he was able to recognize the Arabic letters, but he could not put letters together—he couldn’t read a whole word. But since I started this, he improved a lot. He knows a lot of words, he can read them and he understands them. Writing is not there yet!

Do you have any suggestions for future research?

I want to see further research about how to help parents become successful in this process. I have a lot of friends who would love to do this, but they don’t have the resources. They try, but there’s nothing in place. I would love to see research that says if you do this, a, b, c, and d, you might be successful. Some of my friends even speak Arabic, but they ask me all the time, is it working?  I say “Yes, it’s working, you should try it!” But if you don’t have resources, or a reference point to start from, then it’s difficult.

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