Or do we just continue to criticise Arabic teaching materials, the lack of context in those materials, their out-datedness, their difficulty and the fact that Arabic is a diglossic language? Do we blame the internet, the satellite TV for spreading the spoken varieties or the younger generation for preferring English? But did we ever consider that the family, the home and environment in which the child is raised and socialised in, may play an important part in the child’s acquisition and development of their Arabic? By constantly criticising every part of the child’s society outside the home, are we taking responsibility away from parents and family members?
The learning of language and its subsequent development in children, as I am learning through my research, does not actually depend on the outside world. It depends first and foremost on the parents, the choices they make, what they think about the languages they speak, and what type of home environment they create for their children. This environment will either support or hinder the children’s ability to learn language and to use it well (see my paper here on the functions of multiple languages in an Arabic multilingual family) and in the case of multilingual families- it is a space for the children to explore more than one language. To learn expressions in that language and to understand the differences between their languages.
If we are to think really seriously about how young children of Arab heritage are going to master and speak Arabic in a globalised world (the issues Arab parents face in English majority speaking countries are similar to those parents face in some Arabic speaking countries) then the role the family plays must really be considered. It is true that children spend so many hours in school in any given day, but I always ask, well what happened in the 5-7 years before they entered school? What type of Arabic were they exposed to? And because parents know their child will then need to now learn Standard Arabic once they start school, well what kind of preparations were made to ensure the child was ready for this?
The discussion must shift away from blaming the system, the books (or lack thereof), the media and so on. Parents need to examine how they are deciding to help their children learn and develop the Arabic language in such a fashion that they will become proficient in it, be able to adjust throughout their education system until they are comfortable to use it. There is nothing wrong with using English, with Arabic and maybe even some French and Spanish. But in order to arrive at such a situation individual families need to take responsibility, find support systems/networks and decide what they need to do in order for their children to speak Arabic.
While researching this idea of how beliefs (or what we refer to in sociolinguistics as language ideologies) I was stunned that every time I interview (many) parents they declare their devotion to the Arabic language and how they want their children to learn Arabic not just for religion or culture but for important things like emotion and expressions that don’t have English substitutes. But then when I go along and observe these families in real-time interaction I see none of their ideas implemented. It is not a strange occurrence, often speakers are not aware that their (linguistic) actions contradict their declared beliefs. Simply, there must be an awareness of ideology about language and actual language practice taking place at home if parents want to make a difference.
In all, the family has a role to play in the language learning of their children especially if they live in a setting where their language is not necessarily supported by all parts of their (social) life (e.g. education, work and media). I am not saying that the school, media, poor language books and teaching do not influence or fail to improve the child’s Arabic abilities; all I am saying is- what about the role the family can play in all this?
If you have a few moments and you are a bilingual Arabic speaker please kindly fill out my questionnaire, more info here. Thank you!