Bootleg Bilingualism


In keeping with the theme of catharsis, here’s another confession:  After all of the years we’ve spent in the Arab world, we’re still not fluent in Arabic.  I guess this revelation would be pretty irrelevant without some background.  We started learning Arabic in the US at the hands of kind volunteers, teachers, and friends.  In spite of our strides in reading Arabic, our speaking skills were stunted at “Kayfa haaluk?” (Tr. How are you?).  At some point, we reflected on the many years spent in academia and wanted to devote at least one, whole, uninterrupted year to the study of Arabic, Qur’an, and Purification of the Soul.  We spent that amazing and life-changing year in Yemen and left with the ability to freely converse and comprehend lectures and conversation in Arabic.  Our progress came to a halt during an extended stay in the US and was rendered nearly obsolete in Algeria where we taught English full-time. The last two and a half years in Oman have been a period of language recovery.  People often think we’re fluent, which shows we’re not completely shaming the beloved teachers of our past, but our greater concern is passing on Arabic to Lil’ Z.


We’ve been intent on exposing Lil’ Z to Arabic from Day One.  We would often sing the Arabic alphabet and religious songs to her while changing her diapers or putting her to sleep.  Eventually, we found her throwing around some of those difficult guttural sounds it took us years to master.  We later found her defaulting to one language over another for particular words, but now it’s getting more complicated.

From what we’ve read about raising bilingual children, there should be a consistent system of language exposure.  For example, each parent speaks their mother tongue respectively or there’s a weekday and weekend language.  The former could work for us but teaching Lil’ Z Jamaican patois isn’t quite the bilingualism we were aiming for.  One idea that seemed to be the best fit for our family was to speak our first language, English, inside the home and our second language, Arabic, outside of the home.  This works well in theory, considering our current residence in Arabia.  However, in reality, our fluency is limited to basic conversation or topics related to Islam or the Arabic language.  Unfortunately, we rarely get into deep, probing conversations with Arabic speakers and find ourselves fumbling to convey such concepts to each other.  Also, there are a ton of other topics like health, science, sociology, etc. that we just don’t have the vocabulary base for and honestly don’t have the time to learn.  We would do about five minutes in Arabic, then retreat to English.  Also, Lil’ Z would seem confused by our Arabic directives, since she was just barely comprehending our English.  What to do?

In the last few months, there has been a clear shift.  Somewhere between watching me tutor a student in Arabic, befriending a cool polyglot American family in Muscat, and turning two, Lil’ Z is acutely aware of Arabic as a second language.  And as with most attentive parents, when you see your child’s needs shifting or a yearning increasing, it’s incumbent upon you to respond.  We reflected on our disadvantage of not being authentically bilingual and growing up in the US where the lingua franca is English, with the exception of Miami, for example.  But, we know that we know enough to equip Lil’ Z with a sound foundation and basis to build on.  Having Lil’ Z’s keen ears and eyes intently following our every word is just the reminder we need to stop playing and keep up the little bit of fluency we do have by practicing with each other and her, of course. We’re still reconciling our knowledge of classical Arabic and the common use of Omani dialect around us but what guides us is revisiting our intentions.  Why the heck did we want to learn Arabic in the first place?


Learning Arabic for us was a means, more than an end.  Its value to us is in what it connects us to, most importantly, the Qur’an and the liturgical language of Islamic scholarship.  Fitting in with Arabs or Arab culture may be secondary benefits, given the circumstances, but our aim is to connect ourselves to what is most lasting. That’s what we want to give Lil’ Z.  We want her to read and understand the Qur’an and its embodiment in our lives.  Aside from this, Arabic is a beautiful language with depth and breadth that one can easily study for the rest of their days.  The grammatical structure is complex but consistent and the shades of meanings found in Arabic vocabulary require more awareness and observation than its counterparts in other languages.  It’s an enlightening and challenging language to study.

If you’re like us, a bootleg bilingual family, be of good cheer!  You’re not alone. Here are a few motivators that keep us going, and we hope they will inspire you too.

  • Know your intention and revisit it often.  True fluency takes years and diligence to cultivate, so prioritize attainable goals and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’ve reached your limit.
  • Be practical and realize that language is dynamic and will peak when it is needed most.  Try to at least set a solid foundation that your child can build on in the future.
  • Don’t be afraid to learn a new language with your child(ren).  We envision some family language immersion in the future to recover our abandoned high school study of French and Spanish.
  • Have quality books available in all languages that are equally inviting.  We prefer monolingual books, as opposed to bilingual books.
  • Don’t prioritize language over healthy connections.  Find families that share your views and parenting philosophies to commune with and don’t expose your children to bad character or habits, just for the sake of learning a new language.
  • Make learning playful for young children, using characters and games.  If you find good playmates for your children who speak that second language, you’ve struck gold!
  • Don’t forget to translate expressions of good manners and respect in the second language, even if they are not regularly used by the commonality.

One resource that was recommended to us for teaching language is the Little Pim DVD series.  Watching the free demo lesson online was enjoyable for us and Lil’ Z.  In all of our years of study we never really thought about how to teach a child Arabic. Watching the demo lesson gives us a very doable model to use in our own instruction.


4 thoughts on “Bootleg Bilingualism

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  1. teaching Lil’ Z Jamaican patois isn’t quite the bilingualism we were aiming for.
    LOL. I struggle with this too since the kids learn British-based international English in school: learning my broad midwestern vernacular will get them nowhere. It was frankly shocking to discover how idiomatic and provincial my spoken English is in an international setting.

    1. Good to know that we’re not alone! 😉 One reader made the point that we shouldn’t belittle the merit in being able to understand the family “back home” and I wholeheartedly agree.

      1. My children struggled at first, but what I also found beneficial my family were children Arabic books. These along with cartoons are excellent resources for learning Arabic. Great post!!!!!

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