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Guest Post: My Son Is a Language Superhero, Even If He Doesn’t Know It Yet

ADAM’S NOTE: Not long ago, I was fortunate to cross paths with Hossam Abouzahr through social media and realized right away that his story nurturing Arabic in his young son, while living in the U.S., would be an inspiration to many—and not only families with Arabic as a target language, but all families on a bilingual or multilingual path with their kids. Hossam’s dedication and drive, despite very challenging circumstances, are a shining example of the sort of conscious commitment and proactive efforts that are needed to generate the rewarding progress that can be experienced by any family…as long as we’re willing to make the bilingual aim central to our daily lives and take on this challenge with a full and undaunted spirit. Hossam, many thanks for sharing your encouraging story with us! :mrgreen:

My Son is a Language Superhero, Even if He Doesn’t Know it Yet

Hossam Abouzahr is half-Lebanese, half-American, and he grew up in the United States. He went to a private school where he had to study Arabic, although the main thing he learned is that he hated Arabic classes, which were largely based on grammar and memorization. In grad school he re-approached Arabic, learning to balance between Standard Arabic and dialects. His studies led him to start the The Living Arabic Project, a website that builds dictionaries for Arabic dialects and Standard Arabic. Arabic is characterized by what is known as diglossia, meaning there are multiple spoken, everyday “dialects” that operate side-by-side with what is known as Classical or Standard Arabic (al-Fusha), the latter which is used in formal speeches, media, religious sermons, and most writing. He and his Pakistani wife are raising their son, who is now five years old, trilingual. His day job is as an editor, translator, and analyst.

Hossam AbouzahrMy son is trilingual: he speaks English, Arabic, and Urdu. That’s a pretty cool super power. Passing it on hasn’t always been easy, especially living in the United States where we don’t need to speak other languages. This article lays out some tricks and challenges I’ve faced teaching Arabic (not to leave out my wife, but I don’t want to be putting words in her mouth).

But I’ll start with a key idea: our son speaks these languages because he loves us, and he sees the languages as expressions of us. This isn’t to say that the practical points aren’t important. Without some structure and approach to sharing Arabic and Urdu with our son, we would have frustrated ourselves and our son and possibly even given up.

The earlier, “easier” years

Teaching Arabic was easier during the first few years because all I had to do was interact with him in Arabic. When we’d go for walks, I’d talk to him about the animals, the trees, the sound of the wind, the people and cars passing by, anything that came to mind. He would listen attentively, sometimes jabbering back.

I also read a lot to him. It was a challenge to have to find and pick out and buy Arabic books for him. The lack of resources was and remains the biggest issue. First, being in the United States, there weren’t a lot of places to buy kids Arabic books. On this point, I was lucky that I ended up working with one of the founders of the online shop Maktabatee for Arabic kids books, but it still didn’t stop me from coming back from Lebanon with a whole bag of books. Second, kids Arabic books are almost all written in what is called Classical or Standard Arabic (al-Fusha), but I was trying to build up a basis in spoken Arabic before moving to Standard Arabic. Linguistic studies suggest that, in cases of diglossic languages like Arabic, making sure a child has a solid basis in the everyday, spoken language will strengthen literacy in both the everyday language and the formal language.

My Son is a Language Superhero, Even if He Doesn’t Know it Yet

It was clear right off the bat that most kids books, being in Standard Arabic, used words that weren’t part of our everyday vocabulary, to say nothing of pronunciation and grammatical differences. So I started translating (Classical) Arabic books into (Levantine) Arabic. At first, I had to make notes in the books, writing in the margins so I wouldn’t forget what I was supposed to say, especially at night when I was ready to doze off faster than the little man. But over time I got better and was able to read the books smoothly; this summer I managed to read James and the Giant Peach to him, translating the entire time on the fly.

It still wasn’t enough, though. So I translated some English books into spoken Arabic. On this point, I’m eternally grateful to some Syrian friends who pitched in and helped with the translations, such as this rocking version of Abiyoyo. My dictionary work has given me a huge edge in this, as well, such as by helping me find rhyming pairs for this translation of Green Eggs and Ham.

I also collected songs and made up stories. My son quickly became an addict. Like most kids, at that age he liked repetition, which made it straightforward. I got a few trusty ones polished up and was good to go. When he was younger, if I fell asleep before finishing the story, he found out that he could stick his finger up my nose to wake me up.

These days, though, he likes a new story all the time. So I have to constantly be creative. I’ve found some great ones recorded online. I’ve also told my son classic folktales in Arabic and English, retold books like Dracula, and, as I scrape the bottom of the barrel, I pull from video games I played as a kid and just make stuff up. We’ve also started a game we call haki fadi, meaning nonsense, where we try to outdo the other in telling silly, outlandish stories.

My Son is a Language Superhero, Even if He Doesn’t Know it Yet

Two tricks I learned at this age are worth mentioning. The first is repeating back what my son said in correct Arabic and in a way by which he didn’t feel embarrassed. It has now become natural for us to be in autocorrect mode, even in the middle of a temper tantrum, where pausing to correct a word is a seamless part of the breakdown over not getting to (watch more TV, spend more time at the park, or whatever the latest deal breaker is).

Second, I taught him to ask questions about Arabic when he doesn’t understand. When translating his cartoons to me, he doesn’t hesitate to ask me how to say new words he heard in English in Arabic. If he ever decides to go into translation and interpretation, he’ll have a natural basis for it.

Those were the “easy” years because the language was simple and I didn’t have to deal with the challenges posed by mainstream Arabic education. I learned Arabic side-by-side with my son, learning the names of animals, making up names for things that my Arabic teachers didn’t even have names for, teaching my son in a natural way key grammatical structures and normalizing the idea that English and Arabic can operate side by side.

Growing up and growing challenges

As my son has grown, the challenges have grown, too. This last year has really set a new bar and meeting it will require creativity and innovation. Like most parents riding the pandemic wave, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with the lack of time and energy I feel most days; however, when I step back and look at it, these challenges are surmountable.

There is an overwhelming amount of resources and material available in English when compared with Arabic. Books are getting longer and even if I can translate them on the fly they aren’t written in Arabic so he’s not getting exposed to the written language as much. I’ve gotten some basic books in Standard Arabic that I use to teach him his letters and basic reading, but the differences with Levantine Arabic remain an issue and will only grow as books become more complex.

TV shows are also not available in Levantine Arabic. Some shows and movies have been translated into Standard Arabic and, less often, Egyptian Arabic; however, the majority of the translations in Standard Arabic are, simply put, boring, uncreative, and not understandable to kids. This particularly stands out in the age of COVID-19, when, like many parents, we’ve had to increase screen time in order to survive. Whereas before we tried to limit screen time to 20 minutes in Arabic and 20 minutes in Urdu, now it’s simply put the boy in front of a show to get through our meetings. Netflix has shows translated in Standard Arabic, but they aren’t available in the United States (unless using a VPN), and my son doesn’t like them because he doesn’t understand them. At least in Urdu, particularly because of its closeness to Hindi, there are shows available on Youtube.

I try to find a positive angle to it, mainly by having my son talk to me about the shows in Arabic. Thankfully, there are online synopses for me to read in five minutes so that I can engage with him on his shows, although he always wonders how I know what happens in every show he watches.

My Son is a Language Superhero, Even if He Doesn’t Know it Yet

Another challenge is dealing with mainstream “Arabic” education. I put this in quotes because here in the United States it’s mainly Islamic education with a little bit of Arabic; it’s focused on having kids memorize religious texts without really understanding them, with less attention to teaching actual Arabic, even Standard Arabic. What is taught of Arabic tends to be grammar focused and remains alien for kids coming from a native speaking household that uses a dialect at home. My son, for the 2018-2019 school year, was in a private school that had such classes, and they haven’t changed much from when I was a kid and had to go through them. My biggest concern is that these classes will do to my son what they did to me: make him hate Arabic.

To work with this challenge, I try to focus on the similarities between Standard Arabic and what we speak at home. I encourage my son to think of Standard Arabic as a different version or dialect of Arabic, an idea that he is already familiar with since he’s been exposed to other dialects through my friends, music, and some television shows. It has become something of a game with him, asking me how they say different words in each dialect. He knows random words in dialects like Tunisian, and has started to get the idea of imitating a rural “fallahi” accent. In essence, I leveled the ideological playing field with Standard Arabic, which helps me teach my son how to control and switch between how we speak at home and Standard Arabic. Some, reading the above, might think that I’m against Standard Arabic. I’m not, and in fact I want my son to know Standard Arabic and be literate in it, but I also want him to be able to speak and interact like a native speaker.

The last challenge is the negative mindset held by many Arabs. I’ve had Arab parents tell me things like l shouldn’t try so hard, that Arabic will always be my son’s second language (I’ve actually spoken to my son exclusively in Arabic since he was born), that it’s too difficult to teach Arabic on top of the rest of the curriculum here. Despite me being only half Lebanese, my son still speaks Arabic fluently with me, and his knowledge of animals is actually better than most native speakers. In fact, our learning experience has given me something to share with others who are trying to do the same. The biggest challenges have to do with the lack of resources and people’s attitudes, not with the Arabic language itself being difficult.

A lot of people express surprise that a half-Lebanese who grew up in the United States primarily speaking English would expend such effort to pass on Arabic to his son. A language is more than just a set of grammatical rules or the ability to speak. It’s an expression of ourselves, our cultures, and our relationships. I’m trying to pass on the ability to learn about others through their language and even the ability to learn other languages. I’m trying to show my son that he can be proud of his mixed background and even share it with others. By passing on Arabic, I’m trying to pass on love for all of that.

My Son is a Language Superhero, Even if He Doesn’t Know it Yet

How about you? Feel free to share your thoughts with Hossam about his approach with his son.

9 Responses

  1. Hossam,

    I’m so inspired by your story. Kudos! As a fellow crazy person who also brought suitcases full of Hindi books for my son from India, I get your passion. Since your son speaks Urdu as well, you may wanna check out my podcast with my son. It’s in Hindi. But your son will enjoy since spoken they are so similar. or look up “Josh Ke Saath” on any podcast platform. We make up our own stories. 🙂

    1. My son loves Masha and the Bear! But we watch it on Youtube in Arabic because on Netflix in the US it is not available in Arabic (unless using a VPN). There are actually quite a few cartoons available in Arabic on Netflix, but again not in the US. I’ve been meaning to write a letter to Netflix complaining about this, actually.

  2. I loved reading about your journey Hossam! (and actually I’m trying to learn Arabic too, so I’ll check out your dictionary!) What you’re doing in Arabic is exactly what I’m doing in Chinese for my sons, except I have to learn Chinese at the same time! Even to the extent of making a Chinese app for them too (forthcoming!) It’s an exciting adventure and I have learnt more Chinese in the kid-friendly way than in any adult class. What you said here really resonated with me – including people’s attitudes. (Why??) I’m lucky that now for Chinese there is now a wonderfully thriving children’s book industry, and hope the same happens for Arabic soon, as it’s an equally massive market.

    Every language has different issues to contend with. I totally, totally agree with what you said about diglossia on your blog, that you should learn both Modern Standard Arabic AND colloquial at the same time. It makes so much sense and I wish I could learn it like this (in my classes it is MSA only for now). To draw a parallel with Chinese, I believe it’s not too early to start with Chinese characters. You don’t need to make it boring! You don’t need to drill them with flashcards! You can just gently expose them here and there… oh, by the way, that means X etc. Oh, look at this, doesn’t this look like a Z? How funny! They are not pictures, but you can make it fun and make them like pictures. I love children’s brains so much (and Adam Beck’s fun and creative approach in general). I don’t think you have to avoid them like the plague and nor do I think you have to put them off the language forever – same, my mother hated Chinese schools in the way you hated Arabic classes as a kid (perhaps a bit like Quranic memorisation). There is a middle way!

    It’s been ages since I looked at Bilingual Monkeys but happy to be back now – lastly – forgive yourself re the screentime, it’s a pandemic. Bonus if it’s in Arabic. Best of luck with your journey and so great to know there are so many super motivated parents out there!

    1. Hi Vaishali,

      Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comment. Best of luck with the Chinese and Arabic.

      So I’m not at all against MSA / Fusha. In fact, in other articles, I’ve argued there is a certain beauty to it. My issue is more how children’s learning materials in general are made in such unfriendly way. The idea way I would approach it is by bridging to MSA over several years, starting out by capitalizing on the similarities and building up to the more distinct characteristics. Like right now, when we read in Arabic, I’ll pick out a word, say ??? , and tell him so we say the word ‘ara, but in Fusha it is said qara’ . This way, I can start to introduce him to the phonetic differences, and he can start to differentiate. It’s actually not just with MSA, though. I also do it with other dialects, because sometimes he hears other dialects from my friends.

      Music has also been a really good way to teach both because often more formal phrases are used or even mixed. The trick has been to treat MSA as just another dialect of Arabic, so I can introduce him to the idea that multiple dialects exist but that they are close to each other and predictable.

      If you check out my site, I have one article under the learning section where I also talk about this ( I also talk a bit about it in this article:

      Again, best of luck to you and your family! I feel like learning languages with kids is one of the best ways to go about it and a great way for the family to bond.

  3. Hossam!!!!! This message will not be able to properly convey my deep gratitude for your post here and your work all over! In this post and others you have powerfully covered a topic that is both sensitive and urgent! I am an American married to a Moroccan and I spent hours speaking to my children in Moroccan Arabic only to lose momentum and energy by the time my daughter started asking complicated questions and her second brother was born! It was just too much! I yearned for beautifully illustrated books in darija that I could just plop down and read, but instead had to translate American books with my limited vocabulary: example: “the grouchy ladybug” became “the angry bug.” Ha!

    Your articles have hit such a chord with me, truly this message does not properly express my awe and inspiration! And my sadness at the state of darija, Moroccan Arabic… So many dismiss it and opt for MSA even though NO ONE speaks that on the streets, or anywhere!. It’s maddening, and heart breaking, and it’s all wrapped up in our love for our children too!

    I would love to borrow your brain about writing quality children’s literature in darija! I have some amazing ideas and I wonder about marketing, social pressures, and censorship! I would just love to speak with you!

    1. Hi Mary! Thanks so much for your comment. I honestly feel that bit-by-bit this “movement” is gaining momentum, but it is still going to take a while. I see more articles on it, more attention given to it, a few more books here and there. I really feel like this is a fundamental right, the right to learn in our mother tongue, to pass it on to our children so that they can continue to communicate with their families and friends, that is being denied to us (to say nothing of the deep impact this has on literacy rates and education overall in the Arab countries).

      Feel free to reach out to me at

      I suggest finding likeminded friends who want stories and Darija and each person contributing a few stories / translations. That’s a good way to get started. Even if one person just reads and does an on-the-fly translation, you can record it, write it up, and see about editing it some. You could even try to start a project like Tuta-Tuta, which is a collection of translations of kids books into Egyptian Arabic online. Starting a project can help you structure your activity and keep you motivated when it might seem overwhelming.

      My website might help you with some translations since it has a Moroccan dictionary you can search:

      I’ve also published some other articles on the topic:

      I imagine you can also find kids songs and rhymes, but it might take some digging. My son memorized dozens of songs as a kid just because we would listen to them in the car constantly. But it was a great way to learn Arabic and get the sounds down while having fun. If you find any good Moroccan resources, feel free to share them with me. I try to share things through my FB and Twitter pages, which also act as an informal record of all these resources.

      I always try to keep it fun. It’s about passing on love as much as it is about the language. I know it can seem frustrating at times. I think all parents feel that way sometimes. But you’re giving your kids something beautiful, and that’s worth it.

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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