Is it a good school?

I received many dire warnings from people (whom I had never met before) who were concerned that my three-year old wasn’t in school yet. The main concern was that I was a social recluse, maybe even a Stig of the dump, and perhaps hadn’t realised that I lived in a town with schools. Secondary to that, they worried – more likely scenario – that I wouldn’t find a place. Since there are nine or ten state schools in my municipality, I didn’t think that was very likely. I mean, I can’t be the only crazy mum out there that is still at home looking after a baby and that doesn’t pack the older one off to school as soon as the government is willing to relieve me of her. After all, I’m already putting her in two years before real school starts.

But, they said, you won’t get a place in a GOOD school. What are the good schools? I asked. They listed four or five in my town, so I relaxed and ignored them again. The chap at the Education Department of the Town Hall also labelled two of the closest schools as “good”. So what is a good state school?

Some points we thought of were, not necessarily in this order:

  • distance from home (preferably a 10mn walk or less)
  • a short day (some schools run from 9am until 2pm; others have a 2-hour lunch break then the kids go back until 5pm)
  • languages taught (some have English ‘taught’ from age three up, some have a couple of subjects actually taught in English later on, and some have French taught from age ten)

Oh, and of course we would love to have great facilities and fabulous teachers, but from what I have found out, there isn’t all that much variation between the local state schools (which is as it should be in publicly funded schools, after all) and we may only find out the differences by actual experience.

When I visited the school that the chap at the ayuntamiento intimated was the best in the neighbourhood, I mentioned his accolade. Oh no, replied the lady who fielded my questions. “Todos los colegios son iguales,” she insisted.

If I had moved here with a seven or eight year old, then sending them to a centro bilingüe school with some classes in English would be a very high priority for me. I can imagine that total immersion for kids that age and who don’t speak Spanish in a curriculum designed for native speakers would be quite a baptism of fire. But at four, when school is more about playing, I’m hoping it won’t be too bumpy. In the two years of preschool before any classes in English are introduced, I think – I hope - that my daughter will learn to function well enough in Spanish.

Some days I’m confident – after all, she is already bilingual, and she’ll find Spanish very similar to French. Plus she has a head-start on reading, so she won’t struggle with the actual material, just with the communication side. Other days I just play the stressy mummy role.

Perhaps being in a centro bilingüe would make some classes easier. Perhaps I would understand more about those classes. Perhaps she would even learn some English vocab that I am not likely to use with her. But at the end of the day I think it is down to me to teach her proper English with a wide vocabulary and a deep love of learning so she can fill in any gaps I leave. It is also down to me to keep up with understanding her education and her homework, and I’m determined to make that happen. Besides, it could even be irritating to be in a class of complete beginners being taught English by a non-native speaker. The same goes for French.

As for the timing of the school day, all those in the area stick to the shorter day, so that turned out to be a non-choice. So when it actually came to filling in the form, listing our choice of five schools in order of preference, we simply named the closest school as top choice. Followed by the next closest schools. Phew. All that research to end up back where I started. What was I saying about stressy mummies?

On a positive note I discovered evidence that some schools in Andalucia use Cuisenaire rods (regletas) to teach maths to five-year olds in Infantil. As you know, I am very interested in these rods and the similar colour factor sets, so I’m delighted to know there are some like-minded educators in the area.

Against the flow

You would think that passing on your mother tongue to your children would be straightforward. Actually, if you speak a well-regarded, globally useful language, it isn’t particularly hard. Relatives on both sides of the family will support you and even be grateful you can pass on a language which will boost the kids’ career prospects. There is a plethora of materials available. People won’t look at you strangely in the street. People won’t erode your determination by suggesting that your speaking your native tongue is hindering their progression in the majority language.

You can look at it this way: if English is the minority language in your family, you needn’t worry because it’s the majority language of the world. The same is true of other “major” languages, to a lesser degree. I really feel for parents trying to transmit equally important heritage languages, but which are less well known or considered of little use in the business world.

Lots still to learn...

Lots still to learn…

Still, even with a “major” language, there is one element which can make it hard to pass on that language as fully or as consistently as you had planned. I tend to think of it in terms of a current. Immersion works because you end up being carried along by the current. As soon as your kid goes to school, they’ll not only learn to swim, they may even be carried away by the majority language to the detriment of their minority language(s). So they need you to provide a strong enough flow in your language for them to swim in that direction too when they choose. But as a parent living in a foreign culture, you, too, need to learn the local language. Just because you want to pass on a family language doesn’t mean that you don’t want to integrate your host country. Anyway you need to talk to teachers, doctors, and so on. So mentally you are pushing yourself into the local-language current, trying to learn to swim in that direction. This makes for a linguistic struggle in your head, because you too end up being carried along by the majority language, even though it may be your weakest language.

On the one hand I desperately want to ease the transition into school for my rather reserved daughter. I want her to know some basic vocabulary, to be able to express basic needs. I also want to keep up with her teachers, her playmates, her homework. On the other hand I want to keep providing a decent flow of English interaction when she is with me, and also support our other minority language, French. Not to mention continuing to support a modicum of Arabic exposure. I already try to speak French with their dad during mealtimes so the kids are more immersed in it. I can’t afford for the majority language, Spanish, to steal any of my linguistic effort, when the last thing my kids need to hear from me is Spanish because they will be thoroughly immersed at school.

So my plan is to start Spanish lessons in the autumn, when my oldest goes to school. But I know this will mean a battle of currents. I know I’ll have to fight against Spanish expressions slipping into my speech, fight against the tendency to choose vocab from the top of my head which would mean muddling it all up, fight against talking in sentences that would raise monolingual eyebrows.

Some people succeed with a more relaxed approach, but I need consistency, so does my routine-loving daughter, and so does my 19-month old who says his 40 odd words in three languages and I’m sure will end up being on the receiving end of an avalanche of Spanish once his big sister comes home from school and wants to play teacher on him, poor thing.

Arabic alphabet cards

Aeons ago in my pre-motherhood life, before I had any kids to subject to my linguistic experiments, my in-laws gave me these cards as a gift. This set of Arabic animal alphabet cards helped me, and now they are proving fun for my little ones. My kids are just about old enough to play with them without spoiling them (the oldest just turned four), so this has been their latest treat.

Arabic alphabet flashcards

Arabic alphabet flashcards


from right to left, the Arabic alphabet in animals

As a bonus, while I was last in Lebanon, I found this book from the same series. Inside it has the same illustrations as the cards for each letter, and also a short phrase about the animal.

Here is the book

Here is the book


The cards and book complement each other. The advantage of a book is that you can take it out and not worry about losing one card (it’s so frustrating when a crucial part of a set is missing!). My three year old can look at it in the car, or during book time, too.



With the cards, on the other hand, you can play all sorts of games. Because they present the same vocabulary in different forms, they are a good language-learning tool. You really need to see a word in different contexts for it to sink in, so the two formats help.

Of course, choice of vocabulary is always an issue in Arabic. For example the word used for ‘cat’ is neither the  قط  I learnt in my Classical Arabic course, nor the ‘pseiné’ the Lebanese generally use, but هرة. You just can’t pin Arabic down and make it behave like other languages. But then again, no living language can actually be reduced to black and white and fixed in place or in time.

The animal names are useful vocab for kids as they crop up a fair bit in their other books. There is quite a bit of cross-over of vocabulary with their Arabic versions of Gruffalo (Al Gharfoul), The Odd Egg (Al Bayda Al Ageeba) and Monkey and Me (Ana wa Qirdi) because with all of them combined, we have several monkeys, chickens, elephants, bats, snakes and owls. Of course small phrases are even more useful than nouns, but using the cards you can always work on ‘give me…the monkey/cat/snake’, and ‘where is …the frog/giraffe.’ If your kids aren’t too sensitive, you can always work with a verb like ‘eat’:  ‘The crocodile eats the monkey, the snake eats the chicken… what does the bat eat? The spider?’

We went to the zoo recently, and on the way home we told ourselves the story of Monkey and Me, in Arabic, filling in the animals that we had actually seen. The text from the book is short and rhythmic so it is easy to learn off by heart and the oldest actually remembered quite a range of animal names too. Later I can see us using the card to copy the letters, or compare the shape of the letter on its own to the initial joined to the rest of the word.

Speak, that I may see a muddle

Although my Englishness is not the top thing I’d choose to draw attention to, nationality or origin does tend to come up when meeting people. I suppose it’s a typical ice-breaker question and it does answer those burning questions (sometimes unasked) Why do you look strange/like you’re not from around here? and Why do you sound strange/have an accent?


In Beirut, my identity could be succinctly summarised as “English”. Sometimes “European” was even enough. In Paris, on the other hand, where many people had visited the UK, “English, but not from London” pretty much covered it. Soon after I arrived in Spain I was asked the same “Where are you from?” question and I answered “England.” Then I felt rather stupid since the person asking was evidently English too and was wearing a look which said “Well, obviously!”


In my 13 years abroad I have never been surrounded by so many English people as here on the southern coast of Spain. Now simply saying “England” won’t pass muster in these awkward introductory moments where one is required to define oneself in a few choice terms before being allowed to move on to actual conversation. Not only must I be more precise, all the information I give will mean something, be processed and assessed by peers.


I can no longer merely be “English”, I have to be a southerner, from Devon, where all the posh folk are (so they tell me). Not that I need say much; my accent labels me a southerner before I admit it myself. At this point I should probably point out that most Brits in this part of Spain are from the Midlands or the North of England. Who would have thought that after years of being defined (superficially, at any rate) by my foreign accent in French and in Arabic, it is now my mother tongue accent that is getting me pigeon-holed.


I had spent a long time outside the English social class system. I didn’t miss it, I can tell you. Of course, every country has its class system, its social strata. In Lebanon, for many, being European alone was enough to put you in the upper ranks. But I could ignore that, with it being so out of touch with reality. This is something altogether closer to home. Everything I say is like a label for my little perch in that class-ridden society. A misleading label though.


Actually, I’m only a fake southerner. Where I grew up in a market town-cum-holiday village in south Devon, you only qualified as a “real” local if your parents were born there. Some people in school were from families who had been local fishermen or farmers or butchers for generations. The rest of us had moved in. I wasn’t a true local because my parents are from the north and the Midlands, both from working class families. So I grew up with a mixed accent; actually I think my parents’ speech varied a lot too depending on the situation, it’s just not the type of thing you think about as a kid.


I remember my older sister laughing at me when I was about 10 and inadvertently picked up the pronunciation of some local school friends – not a posh accent though, more a farming accent. And I was probably about 13 when I spent some time with a few “toffs” who laughed at my short-vowelled “fast” and “grass” and instead said “fahst” and “grahss”. A couple of years later, school friends pointed out that I sounded mostly normal except I said “lizzen” for “listen”.


I still seesaw between long or short a’s. Just the other day, while I was giving my three-year old a bath, she picked me up on saying what we would do “afterwards” with a short ‘a’. “We don’t say ‘afterwards’ mummy, we say ‘ah-fterwards’”, she announced from a mountain of bubbles. A bit rich, I reckon, since she gets her English almost entirely from me. Since she is learning to read, I do sometimes use a short ‘a’ sound on purpose when we are practising reading together as it seems inconsistent to read ‘cat’ with one type of ‘a’ and ‘pass’ with another. In my accent, the long ‘a’ is also the same sound as ‘ar’ makes in ‘cart’ too, making it particularly unhelpful for phonetic reading.


I was never aware of actually changing my accent as a kid, but I guess over my school years it was knocked into a fairly bland “standard” British accent of questionable paternity with the odd Geordie touch. (If you want to know what a fake southerner sounds like you can listen to me here, from about the 24 minutes mark.)


This may sound naive to proper Brits, but as an out-of-the-loop expat, I hadn’t realised quite how much I would be judged on my accent in my adult life. Now if only I could crank it up or down I could keep both camps happy…. but I’m afraid it’s entirely out of my control.


“Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee.” – Ben Jonson

“I am Arabic.”

A few months ago, my three year old stumbled onto the topic of where we all come from. I have never tried to tell her she was any particular nationality. It can be quite a false measure of culture, and it’s easy to get the two confused at a young age. Still, I often talk about the facts of where we were all born or were living at a given time. Curious to see what she had understood I asked her a few questions, starting with the easiest:

“So where does mummy come from?”

“England,” she answered confidently. Of course. I left the UK an awful long time ago (I was 18), but we always visit my parents in England, in the house I grew up in, they speak only English, and I always speak to her in English. Not too hard. Next up:

“What about you? Where are you from?”

“Beirut,” she replied, without missing a beat. This made me smile, as even her dad never says he’s from Beirut, having lived most of his life in the US and France. Plus we left Beirut two years ago, and she only knows about a dozen Arabic words.

“What about daddy, where’s he from?”

“We don’t know,” was her succinct reply. And I think that about sums it up. Her dad is a mix of three distinct cultures. The origins of a third culture kid can’t really be packaged up neatly, which is what makes the questions “Where are you from, then?” or “Are you more cultureA or cultureB?” pretty tiresome. But what tickled me was her assumed independence from us. Why should her origins have anything to do with ours?


Merci kteer 7abibté. Killik zo'.

Merci kteer 7abibté. Killik zo2.


Another generation, another new country. Apart from being brought up in a country which is new to all of us, our kids already have parents from different cultures. Does that make them fourth culture kids?


In any case, I’m glad my little Beiruti will feel the part when we return to Lebanon next month. Even though I call her that tongue-in-cheek because it is ironic that she have come into the world during the years we were there. Had it not been the case, Lebanon would have been a distant dream by now. A completed episode, a mere fling, back when we were young and childless. Instead we will always carry around Beirut with us – on her birth certificate, in her Arabic child health record, in my memories of childbirth, and defining my introduction to motherhood.


Today the topic of Arabic came up.

“I am Arabic,” announces my daughter.

Clearly we haven’t worked on ‘Arab’ versus ‘Arabic’ and I’m not intending to. It’s confusing enough for a three-year old that there’s no country called Arabland and that all Lebanese speak French and English to her.

“Yes, well… you’re Lebanese,” I say, “and you have a Lebanese identity card.” She loves her passport, her zoo pass and library card (both photocards), so I thought she’d like that idea. She did, apparently.

“Does the card say ‘thank you for being Lebanese’?”


“Does the card say ‘thank you for being Lebanese’?”

I can only suppose my little Beiruti is muddling with the thank you cards we make for friends. Or else she has a marginally overblown sense of her own worth to the Lebanese government.