026: How A Parent Can Stick To Speaking Heritage Language


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Today’s question came from a reader who speaks Arabic to her kids.

She writes:

My biggest problem is that I forget to speak my native language! I am so fluent in English, and surrounded by it so much all the time, that I keep slipping back into it without even noticing! The first year I did well with both my kids in trying to speak Arabic, and often said things in both languages (my husband doesn’t speak it), then slipped after that–both times. They are 8 and 3 now and I am worried I’ve missed my chance, especially with the older one. I am considering hiring a tutor… How do you make yourself keep on track and remember? Plus, they both love being read to, but there are almost no good quality children’s books in Arabic out there, we can’t afford Arabic satellite TV, and there’s no one around from the same cultural background as me. The most they get is when they visit with their cousins twice a year and hear a little Arabic there. Any advice would be appreciated.


Dear Jehanne, I hear your pain. You are the only one around who can pass the language to your children, yet it is so difficult to stick to your native language because, well, you are the only on around who speaks it!

It is especially hard if your social and professional life is rich in majority language interaction.

I am walking in the same shoes as you, because I still struggle to stick to one of my native languages – Ukrainian. You see, I am the only person who can speak both of the languages to my kids – Russian and Ukrainian. I alternate these languages every two weeks. If Russian comes off really easy, Ukrainian is a bit more struggle. I often forget then I need to speak it and slip back to Russian.

The reason why sticking to your native language is so hard is because you have long habit of speaking majority language. Now you are breaking this long term habit and creating a new one. Which could be a very difficult task indeed. But the good news that with positive attitude and persistence habit can be changed.

It will take some time to get into the habit. The magic number you will hear is around 21-28 days, but I think it is different for every person, but in general if you got through the first month – you are on the right pass.

So how can you establish the habit to speaking Arabic?

First of all, you need to switch yourself into Arabic mode. The best way to do it is to immerse yourself into it first thing in the morning. Read something in Arabic – a book, a magazine, online news, watch some videos. Also maybe you can talk to your Arabic speaking family in the morning. Listen to Arabic radio station or Arabic music.

You can also have physical reminders throughout your home:
-sticky notes in high traffic places (like fridge, coffee machine, bathroom mirror etc)
-chalk board on the kitchen with the message in Arabic (and you can change the message as often as you want)
-home decor, like pillows with saying in Arabic, or just in ethnic style.
-phone reminders – through out the day set up phone reminders in random time that says just that – speak Arabic
-wear peace of jewelry in your national style when you are around your kids, like ring or bracelet. Every time you look at it, you will be reminded to stick to Arabic
-hang Arabic flag on the visible place – not only it will show your kids that you are proud of your heritage, but you will also be reminded to speak your language.

I also embrace my kids’ support. I often ask them to correct me if I forget to speak Ukrainian. My daughter feels so proud if she can help me to remember!

Please, don’t torture yourself that you don’t stick to the language for right now, it is not just the matter of your inner willpower. There are also many external factors that contribute to majority language usage in your family.
Start everyday fresh and and positive despite the fact that yesterday you used majority language most of the day. You will build this habit, its just the matter of time.

The thing is, when you are stressed about your language, kids will pick up on your mood and will develop the same feeling to their Arabic.
The point is – we don’t want the language you are trying to pass to be in the middle of stress.

Now, lets talk about if it is too late.
No, by any means – no. Older children are as capable to learn second language as younger ones.
But your 8 yeas old may not be as receptive to changing the language of communication with you. I think you should be ready for him to be a passive bilingual for a while, meaning he will understand everything you are saying, but just won’t respond. And that’s OK. With the right need in the future his passive language knowledge can turn into active in a very short period of time.
I’ve interviewed Maria Babin some time ago, and she is a real life example of how passive bilingualism can be a great skill that will turn into active.

Kids are taught by example, not by what we say to them. So just be your best in Arabic, they will pick up on your mood and language.

I am so glad to hear that your boys love to read! And I can definitely relate that it is hard to find good books in your heritage language. Here in the united states the selection of books depends on the language. Books in Spanish are easily found even in my small rural town library, but books in Ukrainian and even in Russian are very hard to come by. Even if I find good selection online, it costs a lot of money.

The most budget friendly option is buy big load of books when you visit your family back home. We have just came back from “Ukraine recently and 2/3 of our luggage weight were books.

I actually wrote the whole article on how to find books in heritage. You can find some tips in it! The last one could be a big surprise to you. Check it out here.

Hopefully these tips were useful to you, dear reader, as well. Let me know in the comments if you are in the same situation as Jehanne and what do you do about it.