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!

School Enrolment in Spain part 2

See here for Part 1 of School Enrolment in Spain.
After a good look at “colegios públicos” on Google Maps, I went along to the ayuntamiento (town hall) to start my real-people-research. The ‘Department of Education’ ended up being a nameless office on the second floor. In fact, a lady from the information desk readily accompanied me to make sure I got the right place. I’m consistently surprised by how patient and helpful people are despite my terrible Spanish.
In fact sometimes I wonder how they understand me at all. I stammer out stuff that I’m not even sure is Spanish, it’s probably French with a few more o’s and a few less nasals, muddled with English word order, and yet somehow they get it (probably from my body language) and answer me as if I were a normal respectable citizen. This did not happen when I moved to Paris. No-one was quite this indulgent, believe me.
ah, the joy of tax stamps

ah, the joy of tax stamps

One of my main aims was to find out which schools I can or should apply to. Our address is close to the border between two municipalities. One school I had in mind, which is just five minutes walk away, is actually in a different municipality, and the official told me there is no way to enrol there unless we get ourselves declared resident in that municipality. (I later found out this is not quite true.)
There are five other schools in our municipality within a 12-minute walk (thanks Google Maps for this precision!) so it’s unlikely I’ll actually end up having to drive them to school, something I really want to avoid.
He *thinks* the applications are in March. I guess he too is lacking a decent web site with all the basics spelt out.
In the list of establishments he jotted down for me, he marked one school with a small asterisk and another with a large asterisk. “Those are good,” he said matter-of-factly. I assume that the size of the star is linked to just how good he considered them to be. Then he told me the rest of the procedure is done through the school directly, and stood up to shake my hand. My visit was fast drawing to a close. I was still trying to figure out where to get my volante de empadronamiento to prove residence in my municipality, otherwise I would have tried to get more details on exactly what makes these two colegios better than the others.
Downstairs in the town hall, I paid for a couple of tax stamps (oh, the happy memories of Lebanese bureaucracy and tax stamps) and got my volante de empadronamiento. So the next stop is to speak to some schools directly. And gather local opinions on “good” schools in the hope of unearthing some actual information. Or failing that at least practise my Spanish.

My issues with je ne sais quoi

Elle Decoration (of course)

Elle Decoration (of course)

One of the problems with moving abroad and immersing yourself in another language is that you forget how to say foreign words in English. I mean all those borrowed words that are commonly used in English. The English language has adopted loads of French words like “ambience”, “connoisseur”, and “rendezvous” (or even fake French words like “en suite”). I’m sure there are plenty of words from other languages that I’m less attuned to as well.

The English have worked out their own pronunciation of these words, a slightly anglicised version which is basically a bit easier to say without twisting your mouth into all sorts of unaccustomed shapes.
The thing is, when you go and immerse yourself in all things French/Italian/whatever you somehow lose your grip slightly on your mother tongue. You go to real cafés instead of Starbucks, you learn new recipes in French, you learn to say hello every time you walk into a shop and goodbye (not thank you) when you leave, you listen to French radio until you can finally get the gist of what’s been happening from the dry, high-speed, minimally informative news reports on FranceInfo (it’s hard, believe me). You sit through lectures on Molière, on thème and version, and if you’re crazy like me, you even go to Arabic classes in French.
It feels like uphill work, but when you have a chance to relax into English you suddenly find you can’t speak it in the same way any more. The French words just come faster sometimes, and even the way you make sentences gets gallicised. It’s worse if all your English friends speak French too because you just babble on, mixing languages. Linguists call this code-switching, but it feels like babbling to me.
I don’t babble like I used to, because for three years I’ve been aiming for pure English with my kids. But when I go back to England, I have no idea how to pronounce the borrowed words. I have unlearnt those in-between words that can swing from one language to another.
The problem is how normal Brits view this. Speaking “foreign” is not well thought of in England. It’s decidedly pretentious to go throwing foreign-sounding words around. I’ve been there, I do get it. To me, too, it sounds ridiculous when people come back from a holiday in Florence saying “Ciao bella!” And it isn’t just me – Kate Fox talks about this reaction in her great book Watching the English.
It’s a curious thing really, because many French words adopted by the English language are related to concepts we aspire to or admire. Its a legacy left over from French being the language of the aristocracy; more recent adoptions testify to our continued awe at French style, cooking and general savoir-vivre (oops). Think of words like boutique, cuisine, haute couture, etiquette, première, encore, etc.
But a Brit using such fancy words excessively, or saying foreign words in a foreign way (that is, trying to say them accurately – quelle horreur!) means you’re a swaggerer, or trying too hard. Fox puts it down to the importance we English accord to modesty (or at least, an appearance of modesty).
The result? When I speak to Brits, I either avoid words that sound French because I can’t remember how to say them in English, or I have a stab and end up mispronouncing them by both English and French standards at the same time. It’s all rather comic, so long as you can leave the country again, I suppose.

School can wait

Some parents worry their kids won’t learn the language of their adopted country well enough. I tend to worry about the opposite. Many people ask me now whether my daughter is speaking Spanish yet. For the record, we lived in Spain for two months last year and five months this year so far.

I suppose if she had gone straight into kindergarten, then by now she would be speaking Spanish (after a fashion). She spends an hour or two once a week with a Spanish babysitter and she’s already starting to respond in Spanish. Surely I should be in a rush to help her learn Spanish as soon as possible, as young as possible. Otherwise she’ll already be behind the other kids when she starts school. Except that she won’t be starting school very soon anyway. Because it gets worse.

Do you really want to shock people? Make them leap to their feet and ask you But why? How could you?! Have them shake their heads disbelievingly as you walk away convinced that you will soon rue the day you made such a terrible decision? Try not enrolling your 3-year old in school. Judging by the reactions where we live in southern Spain this is tantamount to giving them a bedtime bottle of whiskey. Same in Paris. And a lot more places, I suspect.

I would have had to enrol my oldest last March if I wanted her to start this September at the grand old age of 3 years and 1 month. After much consideration, I decided not to. What a can of worms to open.

Do I not realise that starting late will put her at a disadvantage? Odd as this may sound, I don’t mind her being at a disadvantage for a while. Let me explain. I don’t really think that getting total immersion in Spanish five days a week would be the best thing just yet. It already takes a conscious effort to keep her French strong; so far her world is dominated by English. Preschool would reduce her exposure to French and English. English would survive, but I’m not sure French would. I’m not the only one in this situation. Peer influence is so much stronger than any parents’, so I am willing to put off – for a little while – the pride I’ll feel when my daughter starts spouting fluent Spanish.

If she were at school there’d be no more leisurely breakfasts with dad, and maybe no shared lunchtimes. Interactive French exposure would be limited to little more than busy weekends and short evenings – with only about 1h30 between dad finishing work and bedtime.

Besides, in her post 5 Myths About Raising Multilingual Kids one multilingual mum cites the misconception that “You must reinforce the environment language at home.” 

So how will I feel about her starting school aged four (just) and not understanding what anyone’s going on about? What if she can’t learn at the same speed as the rest?

I figure that just living here with a little Spanish babysitting, she’ll pick up enough to get by and not feel entirely lost. She won’t struggle learning to read, write or count. She already knows her numbers and letters, knows her right from her left, and can read a little in English (words like park, window, basket and splash, and in my opinion, enough to work out the rest on her own without any teacher). Converting all this to Spanish is easier than learning it in the first place. What’s more, reading Spanish is a doddle in comparison to English, given the simplified spelling and consistent pronunciation. Spanish is an easy language for a French-speaker – my decision might have been very different if she could go to school in Arabic.

This decision will affect her brother too. I’m guessing that within six months of starting school she’ll be starting to use Spanish with her little brother (who’ll then be 2 years old) as the language of play as I’ve seen happen in so many families where the community language was different to that spoken at home. So I’m also glad to stave off the influence of the majority language on him at an age when he’ll only just be starting to string sentences together in his mother and father tongues.

Finally, as eager as I am to return to a world of adult conversation, I do consider myself fortunate to be around as she makes those precious early discoveries about letters turning into words, about a banana looking oval if you bite it on a slant, and how sand makes for better cake dough when wet.