Across countries and cultures, children of the second generation become fluent in the language of their host country, but native language fluency is lost by the third generation.
The reason for this is pretty straightforward – kids are smart. And because they’re smart, it’s relatively easy for them to pick up a second language through exposure alone. But they’re also smart enough to know which language is the “dominant” language in society, the language they actually need to get along in life. Children quickly pick up the higher status people often associate with fluency in English, and that makes them reluctant to speak anything else.
This is basically what happened to me as a child. At two years old, I was speaking both English and Arabic, but by the time I was four I was speaking English only, adamantly refusing to speak Arabic to my parents.
[bctt tweet=”Bilingual kids quickly pick up on the higher status associated with English.”]
The main thing that had changed in those two years was that I’d started daycare and learned that hey, all these kids speak English. And mom and dad speak English too! So, my four-year-old brain concluded, I only actually need to speak English.
My parents were concerned – they already had some friends whose children were rapidly becoming monolingual in English. They knew they had to act fast to reverse this trend. So in an effort to force me to speak Arabic at home, my parents told me that they would not respond to me if I addressed them in English.
So I stopped talking to them.
Yeah. Given the choice between speaking Arabic or completely isolating myself from her two main caretakers, I, a dependent four-year-old who couldn’t so much as get a glass of water for herself, chose the latter option.
[bctt tweet=”At 4, my parents told me I could speak in Arabic or not at all. I stopped talking to them. “]
My mother really loves telling people this story, and I suspect this is largely because it makes me seem like such a smug little brat.
It didn’t take my parents long to realize the stick approach was not working, so they switched to the carrot. They purchased a 1957 black-and-white Egyptian movie “Enta Habibi,” which translates to “You Are My Love,” on tape. (This was the early 1990s, before the wide availability of Arabic channels or, you know, the Internet.) This movie was the main reason why I started speaking Arabic again, complete with Egyptian dialect and colloquialisms.
The movie, in case you’re wondering, is a musical comedy about two cousins who are forced to get married, only to – you guessed it – fall in love on their honeymoon to Aswan. Though the plot is less than riveting, it was very child-friendly in the sense that it features lots of songs and physical comedy (and even combines them – in one scene, the couple sing a duet while throwing fruit at each other and otherwise attempting to inflict physical harm. It is hilarious, and I say this as an adult with what I like to think is a refined sense of humor). As a child, I watched this movie on a loop for hours.
After that, black-and-white Arabic movies became a centerpiece of my home life, but even then my parents had to stay strict to ensure that I continued to be fluent in Arabic. There were definitely times when my parents, especially my dad, employed the “I’m not talking to you unless you can say it in Arabic” method of language learning, and he also forced my Arab friends to speak Arabic at our house.
He would actually check in on us while we were hanging out, and if he caught us speaking English he’d demand that we switch, much to my deep embarrassment.
[bctt tweet=”If he caught me speaking English with my friends, he’d demand we switch to Arabic.”]
The moral of the story? If you want your children to speak a language other than English, give them some motivation besides talking to Mom and Dad (because let’s face it, that’s basically the opposite of motivation). There has to be something they can do with the language that captures their interest and attention and makes it worth the extra effort.
You have to be persistent too, because kids are inherently lazy and will take the easy way out every chance they get. Case in point: despite my parents’ militarism when it came to enforcing Arabic in the home, my brother and I talk to each other almost exclusively in English. In fact, the only time I use Arabic with my brother is when I’m yelling at him.
(Side note: I always feel like it’s more effective to yell and curse in Arabic than it is in English, it just sounds more serious. Is that just me?)
Fortunately, there are a lot more resources now for families looking to raise bilingual children – not only can you subscribe to a plethora of Arabic and other language channels (we get everything from Kurdish television to MBC Bollywood), there are also all kinds of apps and computer games and books you can get to motivate your kids to learn a second language. When they’re older they’ll be grateful that you took the time to teach them, despite their protests. I know I am.