Sunday, October 16, 2011

On language and learning

Language and learning continues to be a fascinating journey of discovery as parents of kids growing up in multi-lingual settings. Our approach has been unequivocally open to the potential of having little linguists; Cecile has always spoken French to the boys and me English and now they are fluent in both and learning Arabic and there have been exciting moments in the process.

Until his 4th summer Zaki would always reply to Cecile in English which was frustrating for her but finally, visiting her parents in 2009, I remember Zaki racing upstairs in their house where I was unpacking saying "daddy i can understand Mamie (Cecile's mum)" and i said "sure Zaki thats because you're a little French boy and you can talk to her in French as well". A little while later he was back breathlessly excited saying "...and daddy i can talk to her too!" he was so proud of himself at this revelation and, of course, I was extremely happy for him, he hasn't looked back.

Now, here in Lebanon, they get Arabic 6 hrs a week in school. We don't speak it at all at home, the only consistent exposure they have are our building guards and concierge who are Syrian. We know however that they are actively learning it....and it is quite likely that Zaki was reading Arabic before either French or English. On a trip to the airport in February we passed an Arabic exit sign and Zaki said 'daddy thats the exit for the airport' and I asked how he knew....and he said 'because i read the sign'....this before he was really reading French or English.

Now months later Zaki reads English (although he has never had any formally taught English lessons) reads French, and is writing in Arabic and French as his school workbooks attest. Kasem seems to learn language simultaneously he goes along. Before the summer he said "daddy i can count to 100" and off he went, in English, faultlessly counting to 100 and he has only been formally taught numbers in French (and only up to 20!).

They both understand Arabic when spoken too and just lack the confidence to reply to all but the most simple phrases. We endeavour to find someone to come in and speak to them in Arabic so that they can understand that it is a 'normal' language to speak and thereby reinforce their learning by using the language. Zaki just started guitar lessons and I asked the teacher to only speak Arabic! The other day in the shower Kasem wrote his name 'KASEM' on the steamed up mirror and so I asked him to write it in Arabic.....which to my surprise he did...writing it once then rubbing it out saying 'thats not right' and doing it again! And he sings equally beautifully the Arabic and French songs that he learns in school.

We will certainly regret not having learned enough Arabic ourselves to have more actively encouraged this learning process especially if, when we move on as we will in July next year, they forget their Arabic. This will almost certainly happen if we do not end up in another Arabic language environment because there will be no practice at home. And there will likely be yet another 'third language'. It would be great to have a secret family language in such places but time and opportunity have really thwarted my efforts to learn. The real challenge for us remains using what little we have learned; the people on the street want to practice their English or default to English (as a courtesy to the visitor) defeating and deflating our efforts rather than reinforcing and encouraging us. This is a common complaint of the expat language learner, but in the end probably just a tired but useful excuse for undisciplined laziness!

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