If your children are growing up in the UAE, they have the most fantastic opportunity to learn Arabic and perhaps even to return back to their home country completely bilingual.
Having a secret language to impress their friends with or being able to chat to siblings without parents knowing what they are on about is simply a huge amount of fun.
Later on, it becomes very useful: a painless, tear-free GCSE your child can do a few years early, extra pocket money tutoring whilst their friends are on minimum wage babysitting, perhaps a head-start at a university degree programme, and eventually a CV that stands out from the crowd.
Learning Arabic in the UAE
You will have heard all the claims: children are much better at picking up languages than adults, bilingual children are much more likely to acquire further languages in adulthood and with more ease, if children are exposed to foreign languages young enough they can speak it completely accent-free…
Virtually all schools in the UAE, be they British, American or IB curriculum, have mandatory Arabic lessons – sometimes over five hours a week. Five hours is a decent amount of time, so why is it that many parents are finding that even after several years, their children are not able to have a conversation in Arabic, watch Arabic cartoons, or read basic road signs?
Compare this, for example, with Finnish children: they learn two or more foreign language at school and the standards achieved are very high – 47% of the population is proficient in three languages.
Why are expat children leaving the UAE unable to speak Arabic?
Firstly, it is just really hard!
I was brought up bilingual English-French, and have been learning Arabic for four years. Progress is excruciatingly slow. Unlike with French, there are very few cognates in English and Arabic. In French, the words for orange, bouquet, bracelet are the same as they are in English.
In fact, there are more than 25,000 frequently used English words that are unmistakably understood by Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian speakers, among others. This is not the case for Arabic, and so those long lists of vocab can be daunting and tedious.
Secondly, a lack of opportunity to practice!
It’s speaking a new language and making oneself understood, that is really exciting. If children don’t get the chance to experience that thrill when ordering in a café on behalf of their parents who are reliant on them, then the motivation to learn isn’t there.
Another problem is that because there is a large influx of new pupils each year, some schools struggle to stream children in the appropriate level of Arabic class, with children going through beginner’s Arabic year after year.
The good news is that as parents, there are countless ways to help your child learn Arabic, and perhaps more importantly, to see it as exciting and fun.
How as a parent can you help your child learn Arabic?
Learn Arabic alongside your children!
Unlike the piano, say, where you can remind your child to practice their scales without being able to recognize a note yourself, learning a language ideally requires a partner-in-crime as you need someone to practice with.
Ask your children to teach you what they’ve learnt that day in Arabic class, and then rehearse it together. If your child sees one or both of their parents studying Arabic, it can feel more of a fun and communal affair. And they’ll start enjoying it even more when they see how much faster they are picking it up than their parents!
Talking is key
If you’re not able to learn Arabic alongside your child, try and find an Arabic-speaker who would be willing to chat to your child for just a few minutes a week or a month. Maybe there is a friendly waitress in a local café, or a parent at the school.
If you want to hire a nanny, you could perhaps look for one who would be able to speak some Arabic to your child. ArabiCollege.com is a great resource as they can arrange Skype sessions with an Arabic language tutor and so it’s super easy to fit around even the busiest of schedules.
Integrate Arabic into everyday life.
Announcing that it’s time for Arabic homework or revision might make your child moan, so an alternative is to be a bit more sneaky about it! You can practice Arabic without it seeming like a lesson: an Arabic song or language CD in the car, or flashcards at breakfast. Al Jazeera Children’s Channel, now JeemTV, is entirely in Arabic and surprisingly accessible.
Mix Arabic into activities your child loves.
If you have an artistic child, maybe they can make beautiful flashcards for the alphabet and some basic vocabulary. If your child loves their mobile phone, there are some great language apps and games out there. Try Memrise, and if you join in you can have fun comparing scores and competing in the ‘league table’.
Forget long vocab lists – for now.
Language learning expert Benny Lewis explains that it isn’t about the number of words in a foreign language that you know, but it’s about the usefulness of those words.
When I first started learning Arabic, after my first few lessons, I’d learnt how to say United Nations in Arabic, but I still couldn’t say “I’m from London but I live in Dubai.’
Encourage your child to be able to learn how to say a few basic sentences about themselves and their life, and then build on that. For example, if they’ve learn how to say how old they are, find a Youtube song teaching Arabic numbers, and soon enough they will be able to say how old their siblings are, too.
Once they have learnt to say “I’m Indian/American/British” they can learn other nationality names to say where their friends at school are from, too.
Online Skype tuition: http://arabicollege.com/
Language learning app with games: http://www.memrise.com/courses/english/arabic/
Audio course that gets you speaking fast: http://www.pimsleur.com/
Al Jazeera Children’s TV: http://www.jeemtv.net/