By Umm Khalid
Alhamdulillah my children are trilingual, speaking Arabic, Farsi, and English.
I’m an Arabic-speaking Egyptian and my husband is a Farsi-speaking Iranian. We are both also bilingual with English.
When we had our first child eleven years ago alhamdulillah, we knew immediately that we wanted to teach him all three languages, not only English.
We want to raise strong Muslim children with an unwavering Islamic identity and a clear, unambiguous attachment to Islam and all its symbols, including its languages. The language of the Quran is Arabic, as well as hadith, tafseer, and other fields of Islamic knowledge. If parents have an opportunity to pass on this language, it is an important vehicle for gaining direct access to the Quran and sunnah and scholarly works.
Yet there are other languages too, that are the mother tongues of many traditional Muslim lands: Farsi, Urdu, Bangla, Turkish, Swahili, and others. In these languages, Islamic words and concepts are embedded. Words for concepts like Haya’ ( حياء: modesty, shyness, bashfulness), `ayb (عيب : social shame, socially or morally unacceptable), tarbiya (تربية : childrearing, nurture and raising of children), for example, are deep concepts from an Islamic paradigm which do not have a one-word equivalent in the English language.
Thus, to lose our original Muslim languages would be to lose a part of our Islamic knowledge and Islamic identity.
We, as Muslim parents, want to raise our children like lions raising cubs: with pride, honor, and `izzah (عزة : honor, dignity) in Islam. We want our children to hold their heads high, fully content with Islam as their deen and perfectly comfortable in their own skin as practicing Muslims who talk the talk and walk the walk. No hesitation, no self-doubt, no inferiority complex. No self-hating wish to be something other than what they are: Muslims from a Muslim background speaking a Muslim language.
No sad desire to morph into something foreign or alien, or to contort themselves and bend over backwards to fit themselves into someone else’s mold to try to curry favor or gain acceptance or approval. Running after others outside the deen, trying to chase approval or validation externally, is a sign of a colonized mind.
Language is incredibly important.
The words we speak affect the way we think and the way we understand the world.
So don’t let go of your original mother tongue with your children, because of wanting to “fit it” in America or because of laziness or because of the convenience of English.
My tips for teaching multiple languages to your children:
1. You model it for them. Speak to them in your language. You can’t expect your children to speak in your language if you are constantly speaking in English yourself. They will simply follow you.
2. Require your children to speak to you in your language. If taught from a young age, your children will get used to this inshaAllah quickly. Some parents speak to their children in Arabic or Urdu, but don’t require the kids to respond in the same language back. So the kids just reply to their parents in English, and English is the language that sticks, while Arabic or Urdu fade away.
3. Have clear rules and then be consistent. Children need consistency and are thrown off by inconsistencies or chaos. For example, the rules can be that we ONLY speak English at school or at the park with English-speaking friends, and we ONLY speak Arabic at home. Whatever rule you make, stick to it yourself and also hold your children accountable for following the rule as well.
4. If, like in my family’s case, the mother speaks one original language and the father speaks another, this adds another interesting layer of complexity. Now we move from bilingual (two languages) to trilingual (three languages). Don’t be scared or shy away from teaching your children all three languages! It is quite doable and even easy inshaAllah. So don’t limit your children with artificial limits: children are like little sponges and absorb knowledge quickly and naturally mashaAllah!
5. If #4 applies to you, use the method called One Parent, One Language (OPOL). My husband and I did this instinctively without knowing it was a thing. For example, I speak to my children exclusively in Arabic, and they speak to me exclusively in Arabic. My husband speaks to them exclusively in Farsi, and they speak to him exclusively in Farsi. Be consistent. Don’t keep switching things around, and the children will not be confused inshaAllah.
We’ve been so consistent with Mama Arabic, Baba Farsi for so long alhamdulillah, that now when we want to joke as a family, I’ll say something in Farsi and my husband will say something in Arabic. The kids laugh like it’s a hilarious joke!
My husband and I speak to each other in English mostly (with some Arabic and some Farsi sprinkled in too!). The children speak to each other in a fascinating mix of all three, plus some hilarious made-up words of their own invention, too. The more the merrier!
6. Never show annoyance or punish your child for forgetting a word in one of the languages. This can happen sometimes. No worries. Help them translate it, and they will remember it next time inshaAllah. Don’t put too much pressure on your children.
7. For a young child, repeat what was said in English in Arabic/ Farsi/ Urdu/ etc. So that they have the words to express the same events or ideas across all the languages. We don’t want the non-mainstream languages to fall behind.
8. Reinforce the non-mainstream languages elsewhere to bolster them in the mind and on the tongue of your child. For example, ask your Arabic-speaking relatives to speak to your children in Arabic and not in English. Gently but consistently remind the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents to stop using English words and speak fully in Arabic to your children, if it’s possible. If you allow your children to watch TV, do not allow that to all be in English. Give them shows in Arabic or Urdu to watch too, to reinforce the language.
9. Expand the vocabulary base. Do not speak the Islamic language only as a limited kind of “baby” language, thus ensuring that your children outgrow the language as they get older. If you only teach your children very basic Arabic/ Urdu/ etc, they will only know how to say basic, simple sentences and will not be able to express themselves fully in a deep or meaningful way as they grow and their ideas become more sophisticated. As they get more advanced in their thinking, supply woth with advanced words and phrases in your language to keep up with their level of thought and speech. Otherwise, they will simply switch to the language they can more fully verbalize their thoughts in, which will end up being just English.
10. Read books in your language, even books that are not written in your language! When my children were little, I would check out children’s books from our local public library. When I’d sit down with my kids to read to them, I would read them the English book entirely in Arabic, translating in real time in my head as we looked at each page. My kids couldn’t read anyway at that stage, so they didn’t know any better!! To them, all the public library books were in Arabic!
(Don’t worry, in case you’re wondering, as my children got older, I would read the books in both languages, English and Arabic.)
Dear parents, the important thing is for you to know that it’s very much possible for you to teach your children multiple languages and for you to have confidence.
Our children will naturally mimic us and absorb whatever we offer them.
Let us offer them `izzah (عزة), honor, dignity, and pride in Islam by passing on to them the languages of our rich Islamic traditions and beautiful wholesome cultures. Do not cave to the modern pressure to adopt foreign non-Muslim ways or to abandon your own Muslim ways in favor of some other “superior” language.
Nothing is superior to Islam.