A fourth language in small doses

Arabic is now the family language my kids hear the least of. They overhear a bit from the grandparents and I still read occasional stories in Arabic which they love. We still use the phrases they have learnt. But Spanish has had a major boost recently in our family, with my four-year old starting school in Spanish and the two-year old getting occasional Spanish babysitting while I myself go off to Spanish lessons.

 

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Since we already have three languages in our daily life, and since I am not a fluent Arabic speaker, it is only a small part of our life. In our current circumstances, there’s neither the exposure nor the need in place to get my kids to speak Arabic well.  All the same, I didn’t want to drop it entirely. And so we keep it alive in two very limited contexts: animals and the letter box. This might seem odd. But many multilingual families – whether it be in first world TCK multilingualism or third world nationwide multilingualism – work on the basis of one language for one place/situation/context.

 

So we use words they already know from our books like The Odd Egg, and from our animal alphabet cards and the conversational Arabic I learnt living in Lebanon to talk about animals we have seen, often on our regular trips to the local zoo. I don’t know if anyone ever got as much use out of their year pass as we have in the past 12 months!

 

As well, we talk Lebanese Arabic about the letter box. Yes, this is the weird bit. It usually starts with the guessing game “Fi shi ow ma fi shi?” Once we find out what is in the mail, if anything, we discuss that. A lot, a little, a letter, who for, who from, where from? Sometimes the conversation continues as we take the lift up home and open anything interesting. It’s two minutes of Arabic a day, most days. It is what it is. A thread, a connection. And they love it.

 


 

Stressing over stress

Recently, my Spanish teacher tried to teach us where to write acute accents in Spanish. The first rule was: Agudas: son las palabras cuya sílaba tónica es la última. Llevan tilde cuando terminan en vocal, n o s. The other rules applied to llanas and esdrújulasThese three categories refer to which syllable the stress falls on.

 

The problem is I usually don’t know where to put the stress (or tonic accent) in the first place before even asking myself what the final letter is, and if therefore it needs a written accent. So I decided I’d best turn the thing around and learn the stress rules first, since accents are usually used to show exceptions to the stress rules.

 

The rules of stress are roughly the following:

  1. In most cases the stress is on the last syllable;
  2. However, if the last letter of the word is a vowel (very common) or an s or an n, then the stress should be on the penultimate syllable. This gave me a starting point for pronouncing words I don’t know well in Spanish. The next stage is as follows:
  3. Words following these two rules don’t need accents. Words that don’t follow these rules need accents on their stressed syllables to show that they are exceptions;
  4. It follows that:
  • all words with the stress on the third-to-last or fourth-to-last syllable need an accent on that syllable (eg, el estómago, or the grouped form dándomelo)
  • any word ending with a vowel or s or n which doesn’t have the stress on the penultimate syllable needs an accent (el jardín)
  • any word ending with the other consonants which doesn’t have the stress on the last syllable needs an accent (fácil)

 

For me, learning the topic in this order was easier. You don’t need to memorise number 4 since you can deduce it from the rest. If you are already fluent and just need to learn how to write correctly, the other perspective probably works better.

Apart from showing stress, there are a couple of other reasons for using accents in Spanish, but that is enough for me for one night!

The Problem With Arabic

Anyone who has put their minds to Arabic will know that the initial major issue is WHICH Arabic to learn, classical or dialect and if dialect, which one. Do you study the written language you can find in books, or the daily conversation Arabic which has no written form?

 

As a parent, trying to open a little window, even a tiny porthole, onto the language and culture, this problem takes on a new form. I can read my kids books in French, normal everyday useful French. I can even read to them in Spanish, and apart from the rubbish accent it’s the same Spanish people really speak, more or less. But reading books in Arabic to your kids is rather weird. Because these simple sentences are things that no mother would ever say to her child. No-one actually speaks classical Arabic in any informal situation. And classical Arabic really is vastly different to the dialects in my unprofessional opinion. It even makes things complicated for native-speakers teaching their kids Arabic as a additional language.

SNAP! or according to my 3-year old: "CAC."

SNAP! or according to my 3-year old: “CAC with a dot.” (from The Odd Egg in Arabic)

The result? No one reads my Arabic books to the kids. I thought people would quite like reading a story to the kids in Arabic and at the same time the kids would get some native input. So I pull out these lovely stories and they cuddle up on the sofa together, while I get on with preparing the dinner …only to hear Al Bayda Al Ajeeba (The Odd Egg) translated from Arabic into French. Or translated back into English. (Perhaps I should tape it and send it off to author Emily Gravett?) Not all my Arabic-speaking visitors do this automatic translation trick, but the majority. You’ve got to admire their linguistic flexibility.

 

It seems that the Lebanese are so unused to reading to kids in classical Arabic (let alone speaking it to them) that they naturally slip into other languages. And we mustn’t forget all the Francophile Lebanese who speak Arabic all day long in their daily lives, but only French to their kids.

 

No wonder many adult Lebanese find it such a drag to pick up a book in Arabic. They are not even used to children’s books in their native language (although I suppose classical Arabic doesn’t feel like their native language, and that’s the whole point). It’s a bit like French teenagers moaning about the ‘antiquated’ passé simple in French literature, but for Arabic it’s not just one verb tense which is no longer used in everyday language. It’s almost every part of speech.

 

While it is true that we could eliminate the French passé simple and just say the same thing in everyday French, I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to language, so although it is more ornament than instrument, it doesn’t bother me. As for classical Arabic, it can’t be superseded as there is (as yet) no accepted written form of Arabic dialects (though I love the imaginative transliterated dialect I read online). More importantly, classical Arabic crosses the borders of the many Arab countries. That’s quite a sacrifice if you decide to opt for just one spoken dialect.

 

All the heavy debate aside, I just love to watch my 3-year old bouncing up and down on the terrace shouting “Wain el ‘amar?” (where’s the moon?) to her little brother who nearly falls over himself pointing and shouting “Amar! Amar!” (moon! moon!). Later they’ll have to learn that it is written something like “Ayna el qamar?” but for now I’m chuffed as it is.

Kids’ books in Arabic

I realise it’s a bit odd trying to introduce Arabic to my kids when it’s not my language. I know that out of the three key factors - need, exposure and prestige – none are really present enough for Arabic in our family. There’s really no need to speak of, since all the Arabic speakers in the family have a second native tongue, French or English. As for exposure, the kids only get a tiny bit of exposure from my in-laws, but at least it’s authentic. However, I’m not aiming to teach them the language as such. I couldn’t if I wanted to. I just want to open their minds to it, to give them the option of tuning in to it, rather than tuning out when they hear it spoken. By viewing it as important, I can at least give it a modicum of prestige. I also thought the native Arabic speakers we know would enjoy reading to the kids, although that side of it didn’t quite work out as planned.

So back to translated books. As for Al Gharfoul, as The Gruffalo is called in Arabic, I’m not qualified to judge the quality of the translation and I haven’t had much feedback from Arabic speakers. But we like reading it, and I’ve chosen a few simple expressions from it to use around the house with my three-year old, for example “ila ayna, ila ayna” (in the original, “where are you going”), “fa’ra” (mouse) and “lisayn aswad” (“black tongue”). This has been a lot of fun and my three-year old daughter does play around with these words on her own, along with a few others she has learnt.

The Gruffalo in Arabic, translated by Nadia Fouda

The Gruffalo in Arabic, translated by Nadia Fouda

I did notice a few short vowels are not printed. Probably it’s because these are words that would rarely be mispronounced, so there’s no need to add vowels for clarification even for children. Typically, if you can read a story this long in Arabic then you know the language well enough to pronounce these words correctly. But…I don’t, really, and this story is over my head linguistically. I have to decipher it fairly slowly. If my three-year old, who understands even less, wasn’t such a bookworm and a language nerd then she’d get bored. I rarely read the entire text in one sitting, and nor does anyone else. Sometimes I do the narration in English and the voices in Arabic.

The Odd Egg in Arabic, translated by Hanouf Al Buainain, Amira Abed

The Odd Egg in Arabic, translated by Hanouf Al Buainain & Amira Abed

So having learnt from this, I recently ordered the Arabic translation of The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett. Ironically, I used to borrow the English original from our little library in Beirut. Back then, my daughter wasn’t two yet. There is much less text than The Gruffalo. The text is also bigger and all on a cream background, making the script easier for me to read. As for the translation, in the original, there are some words in the illustrations, for example, comments by the birds, and the title of a book which is pictured. All of this has been carefully rendered in Arabic in the same handwritten style. Much better than the Spanish translations of Charlie and Lola, aka Juan y Tolola, which are in the local library; Charlie has been renamed Juan, but in the picture his top still has Charlie written on it. I particularly like the rendering of the owl’s brainy utterance which was a list of sums in the original: in the translation, it becomes a string of literary Arabic pronouns.

Conclusion: Both are lovely but I should stick to short stories for now!

It might be just what’s needed to trigger some passive learning. I do want my kids to feel attached to it as a family language. I feel attached to it, and I’m only Lebanese on paper, not by blood like them. If they were to take it further later, then there are native speakers in the family, it’s just that for now we need them to help us with French!