Many parents in Lebanon have given up on teaching children their native language, believing that Arabic is of no benefit to their future. Experts, however, disagree.
A pregnant Lebanese mother-to-be, hopeful that her child will acquire fluency in a foreign language, often will begin her child’s language training before birth by regularly conversing in English, French, and indeed, any language other than Arabic.
Many parents consider speaking to their infants in languages other than Arabic logical, considering babies are able memorize much of what they hear. They often prefer that their child is able to say fragmented phrases of a foreign language as opposed to a proper sentence in Arabic. Soon-to-be mothers and fathers often are not concerned that such actions might come at the expense of their child’s native language.
The reason that parents often will shy away from using Arabic in front of their children stems from a belief that knowledge of Arabic will not benefit their son or daughter in the future.
This belief has prevailed among parents who not only insist that all this is in their child’s benefit, but actually pity the infants who only hear the Arabic language at home, even taking it upon themselves to berate other parents that do not use languages other than Arabic when speaking to their children for their “terrible mistake.”
That is, in fact, what a saleswoman in a women’s clothing store recently did when a client asked her to speak to her two-year-old daughter in Arabic, since she does not speak French. The saleswoman, who never speaks to her own children in Arabic, was shocked and indignant.
Ironically, that very same child holds a dual Lebanese-French nationality, acquired from her father who spent many years studying and practicing medicine in France. The two-year-old girl’s father is careful to speak to his daughter in Arabic, ensuring she is given the chance to learn her native language.
Though this father is an anomaly among other parents, his actions are what educational psychologist Nay Sweidi would recommend. Sweidi stresses the importance of language in formulating a child’s personality and character.
“Children first distinguish between people, and discover their parents and relatives’ love through language,” Sweidi explains. “In the first few months, their language is laughing, crying, and screaming. In their first year, however, they start to acquire the sounds and words they hear,” he adds.
“Logically, the infant will be most affected by the language used to communicate with the mother. Hence, if the mother chooses a language other than her native one, she will inadvertently harm her child’s spontaneity and ability to express emotions and impressions,” the doctor adds.
“The reason is that no matter how fluent the mother is in the second language, she is still hesitant when expressing her own compassion and cannot do so with proper spontaneity and feeling. This in turn fosters the same difficulty in the child when they try to express their emotions.”
Perhaps this could explain the shyness exhibited by children who rarely seek to socialize with others or communicate with older adults. However, this could be due more to a lack of understanding or inability to express themselves rather than any innate shyness.
Hence, children may be taking refuge behind their mothers when faced with a question or confusing social situation. The mother, usually, does not help either: by translating for her child, the mother ensures that he or she will always need an intermediary when communicating with the outside world.
Language is the method by which children acquire knowledge and culture while their native language allows them to interact thoroughly with their environment, fostering a sense of belonging.
Of course, this does not mean that children should never be exposed to other languages. However, for the first two years at least, children should ideally be exposed primarily to their native language.
This rarely happens. Children are often exposed to a combination of foreign languages with the occasional phrase in Arabic. The result is that, by the time they reach schooling age, he or she often views Arabic as being just as foreign as English or French.
Incapable of using it, or even understanding it, children may start to hate the Arabic language, associating it with the rigors of school and failing to appreciate it as a medium of expression, culture, and belonging.
Some parents, however, could not care less if their child hates the Arabic language, since they believe it does not benefit them as much as a foreign language.
For example, Rawan, who travels to Canada to give birth, sees her children’s future in Canada and not Lebanon so “why would they need the Arabic language?” she asks. However, she admits that her children are not fluent in French while their Arabic is also very rudimentary.
For her part, Fatima Charafeddine, who writes children’s stories, relates her troubles reading stories to children during the annual Reading Week.
“There is a huge gap between children and the Arabic language,” Fatima says, “children ask their parents for the definitions of the simplest words. They do not recognize the Arabic words for prison, judge, or punishment.”
Fatima adds that “this problem is exacerbated in private schools that consider themselves elite [where classes are taught almost exclusively in a foreign language]. On the other hand, public school students are more fluent in Arabic and are more comfortable expressing themselves in Arabic.”
This is an example of how speaking in a foreign language has become indicative of belonging to a certain identity and class in Lebanon, which privileges the foreign-language speaker and encourages them to look down on those who speak the country’s native language.
Pathetically, children seem to show off their poor Arabic, without giving any thought, much less effort, to strengthen it, not even when they reach middle and high school.
This is what Ruba, a Lebanese mother, did when her daughter, who is preparing for the her official examinations, asked her the meaning of “sira zatiya” (C.V. or resume). But how would this daughter explain the phrase during her official examinations with no one to help her translate?
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.