31 Mart 2016 Perşembe

We Raise Our Child Bilingual. Why and How?

We Raise Our Child Bilingual. Why and How?

            My mother tongue is Arabic. Just like all people living in my village, which is situated in Antakya in Turkey near the border of Syria. When I opened my eyes to life Arabic words were flying around me. That time Arabic was the language of all parts of life in my village. I grew up with the love words of my mother, the comforting tone of my dad’s voice, the sounds of my ten siblings, their games and the Arabic noise of fighting neighbours. All of them were in Arabic. I did traditional dances like Dapki with the Arabic songs when I grew up little bit. I watched cartoons in Arabic on the Syrian TV channel. I learned and played the Arabic riddles, tongue twisters and songs in Arabic. It was very entertaining to listen to the old people on the street telling fairy tales like 1001 nights in Arabic near the room I used the sleep. My imagination grew very much with those tales. I experienced my first love and fights in Arabic. I started to think, dream and imagine in Arabic. It was not only me but all kids with the same age of me were experiencing the similar things at that time. I was living in an isolated Arabic area far from the effect of Turkish language and culture.
            When I reached to the age of seven I started school. Turkish language was first introduced to me at that age. It sounded to me so different and I thought the classroom was just another world because a different language was spoken there with a different woman (Teacher) standing there. Then I was informed that speaking my mother tongue was forbidden and I was allowed to speak only Turkish. When I was caught speaking Arabic or the class president or my friends reported me to the teacher blaming that I was speaking Arabic I had to suffer the consequences of this unforgiving crime-speaking my mother tongue. Like all the children doing the same crime I was usually hit by wooden rulers in the palms or slapped on the face. It was shocking at the very beginning. My mother tongue turned to be a tool of crime. So I had to refuse it to avoid the punishment. I did it. Also my teacher would never have loved me. It was a strange state of state of psychology. I started to question my mother asking myself; “Why on earth my mother did not know Turkish? Why didn’t she teach me Turkish?”
I went to the city centre from my village for secondary education. Sometimes on foot sometimes on the roofs of the minibuses. Before I left home almost every day my parents-just like many of the Arabic speaking parents- warned me not to speak Arabic among the city children and teachers since they didn’t want me suffer from the same discrimination they had been exposed to. It was the lesson of their life experience. When I graduated from high school I was still not able to speak Turkish fluently. I used to feel embarrassed while speaking Turkish in the crowd and sometimes I was completely stuck. To express myself comfortably, I used to add Arabic words in the Turkish sentences which sounded funny.
I studied English Language at the university. After Arabic and Turkish, English was the third language that started to widen my world. It was so entertaining to learn another language. I had almost no difficulty in learning this interesting language. Actually, it was not something surprising for people growing up bilingual since they usually have fewer difficulties in learning more languages. At the same period of my life, I started to learn German from my roommate and Kurdish from the people of the town (Diyarbakir) where I was living and studying that time. When I started to work as a teacher, I was interested in French and other languages. I started to consider languages as toys. Each time I learnt a language I gained a new toy which added new colours to my life. On the other hand, travelling abroad helped me develop my languages, enjoy using them and learn about different cultures. 
When I grew up to a certain age, I started to think that it was a big change to come to the world as a member of a minority group. This way, I learnt a few languages. I didn’t have any prejudice against different cultures and differences did not scare me. Also I developed my ability of empathy and learnt how to question everything happening around me. Most importantly, I loved the diversity of the world. I realized that not only me but most of the people with the similar background (minority) usually develop the similar abilities.
            I got married to a Turkish speaking woman. Living with her made my Turkish pretty good. I became fluent in Turkish and overcame the fear and embarrassment during speaking my second language-Turkish. Also, I kept my mother tongue live and fresh by using it in my daily life. I visited my village in Antakya and spent long time in that natural atmosphere of the Arabic language. I spoke with my family members (brothers, sisters, parents) in Arabic and I enjoyed it very much. I was aware of the truth that if I hadn’t kept my mother tongue active in my life it would have disappeared. Speaking a countryside Arabic with limited word capacity urged me learn how to read and write. I was unlucky because I was not allowed to get even basic education in my mother tongue in the Turkish school system. I got angry with the system of my country as it was their fault.
 I watched a lot of Arabic movies. I travelled to Syria many times before the war. During my stay in that beautiful country I realised that my Arabic dialect of Antakya was good enough to communicate with people. It was proved that I could protect my Arabic despite many disadvantages. When the Syrian refugees arrived to İzmir I started to volunteer for them as a translator. It was surprising to see that my Arabic language was improved in İzmir although I was away from my hometown. 
            We decided to have a child with my wife. My wife gave birth to a son who was premature (1.5 kg). The moment I held our baby, Enis, in my arms I whispered the first words into in his ears in Arabic just like my mother had done to me; Habibe (Honey), Ya Ruhe (My soul). I did speak only Arabic with him since then and he has not heard even a Turkish word from me yet. I knew I had to be consistent and strict about it. We made a big decision with my wife. I would speak only Arabic with our son whereas she would speak only Turkish. Enis is 3 years old now and he can understand and speak the two languages. Despite the common fears, he can speak both languages correctly and fluently. Also, he started to speak just in time (unexpected for a premature child) and the languages did not affect each other badly. It is not suprising that he is more productive in Turkish as he mostly spends his daily life (kindergarten, his friends, TV, etc.) in a world of Turkish language. However, he can easily switch to both languages in the right time and use the one he would like to. It is very interesting to see that Enis knows he should speak Arabic only with me. How did we succeed raising our child bilingual? What are the possible ways and methods of raising a child bilingual? How about the difficulties? I wrote this article to share the possible answers of these questions and share the details of this unusual experience with you.
            It is quite challenging to raise a child in a country where the minority language cannot compete with the dominant (official and common) language. First of all, the dominant language exists strongly in social life, environment, visual and auditory media, in books, magazines, songs, in street voices and even in noise. So the child is surrounded with the dominant language. On the other hand the voice of the minority language speaks with low sound. That mean minority languages can only whisper. And you have to teach your child this language only with whispers. However, I was determined to raise our child bilingual by surrounding him with a circle of Arabic language. I was aware of the truth that I was going against the strong tide.
Enis had to hear Arabic in a natural way as much as possible. Since learning a language happens during the early ages of the child, I had to expose my son to Arabic at the maximum level at this period. I did a couple of things to make it possible. First, we didn’t hire a babysitter for him so I spent long time with him in the first three years. I intentionally spoke to him more than usual. I sang the Arabic lullabies and songs my mother used to sing to me. I did my telephone conversation with my parents, siblings, friends and relatives in Arabic during my son’s presence. It was clear that Enis was recording what he was hearing. Arabic was already the special part of my life and I was using it as much as possible. Also, when we spent time in the garden with my son I spoke to the cats, dogs, chickens and neighbour children in Arabic so that Enis could hear this language intensely. I was trying to be a model for him too.
            When our child became two or three months old we started to make him listen Arabic lullabies and songs on Youtube. When he was almost one year old he started to watch cartoon song videos. He enjoyed watching them. After some time he started to produce meaningless sounds while watching the songs. It was the most exciting part of this period. I learnt the songs after some time and started to sing for him anytime I found the chance. Enis is a real story lover and a good listener like most of the children. I started to tell him stories in Arabic before he went to sleep. When he was fourteen months I started to read him story books with pictures. Actually the books were written in Turkish but I was translating them into Arabic at the same time. My wife was reading the same story books in Turkish the other days. We still tell our son stories the same way.
            All in all, I created a small Arabic world for my son and myself with Arabic in a big world of Turkish. This was a precious experience for me. I was back in my childhood living every Arabic word with its story and recalling. It was interesting to realize that I was using the same words that my mother -the master user of Arabic- was calling, getting angry and showing her love. I was just imitating my mother. I was also using the humorous, reassuring and poetic words of my father. I was living every part of my life again while teaching my son my mother tongue.
My wife Züleyha, who has an accent of Tokat (North of Turkey), also enjoyed speaking her mother tongue with Enis fluently. She told Enis every detail of the things with her strong voice. Also, she told him stories and sang songs with her lovely voice. She read him stories. When he started to go to the kindergarten his socialising process and intense exposure to Turkish language started, too. As a result, Enis is speaking Turkish fluently when he becomes three and half years now.
My wife who is an English language teacher is interested in other languages, too. She was very interested in Arabic since we first met. She learnt lots of Arabic words in a short time. We travelled to my village often and regularly. The warm, friendly and crowded social life that still exists in my village exposed my wife to Arabic very much. When Enis was born Zuleyha had already been able to understand the Arabic conversations. Zuleyha became more competent in Arabic after our son was born because I was always speaking Arabic to him. This language became part of our life. Sometimes Zuleyha was also speaking and singing to Enis in Arabic. However, making our job easier was the joint decision of raising our child bilingual. We did not have any conflict about this important decision. We knew that sometimes one of the parents could disagree with the idea of teaching their child a minority language. The disapproval is usually based on some prejudices. They believe that if the child learns two languages at the same time he/she will be able to speak later than usual and with a bad accent. Moreover, it is thought that kids growing up with the minority langue will face discrimination in their lives. We learnt from our experience these prejudices were not true maybe except the discrimination part.
            We went to my village in Antakya and spent long time there a few times every year. Although Arabic is getting poorer in the area most of the people are still bilingual. Enis did find the opportunity to live in a natural world of Arabic among my big family members, streets and neighbourhood. My mother, who doesn’t know Turkish, spoke to him Arabic only. Enis was growing up in the same street, house and people with Arabic words and voices where I spent my childhood.
What else did I do to expose Enis to Arabic? We visited the Syrian families so that Enis could hear Arabic words and different accents. Enis communicated with children and adults in Arabic. It was very nice experience to see that the small Syrian children were telling Enis Arabic stories and read books to him. It was also great time for me as I was also enjoying speaking my mother tongue with them. The Syrian families, trying to adapt to their new lives in the new society, felt very happy with the visits I did with Enis. What a Syrian woman told me made their situation clear. She said; “Mohammed, I feel as if I was at home in Syria when I speak Arabic with you”.
Three-year-of intentional exposure to Arabic made Enis speak Arabic possible. The first Arabic words poured out of his mouth one after another just like the explosion of popcorn corn when he was almost two years old. The fisrt words were; ‘May May’ (water water). ‘Kıtta’ (Cat), Ce Ce (Chicken), t3a t3a (come here), wahdi, tnen, tleti, arb3a, hamsi, sitti…. (1,2,3,4,5,6…). Afer a few months we heard sentences coming out of him; ‘Ene beddi may’ (I want water), ‘Kum beyyi’ (Stand up dady), ‘Eyna imme’? (Where is my mum?). Also, he started to produce Arabic-Turkish mixed sentences or phrases. For example; ‘Çiş, kaka fiy/efiy’ (I gotto pee/shit). ‘Bana seyyera ver’. (Give me a car). Although I was having some difficulties I insisted on speaking Arabic with Enis and finally I received my award. Nothing could be a better award when Enis told me after I had a bath; ‘Sahha mayytek beyyi’ (wish you a healthy bath daddy.). Each time Enis broke something he looked into our eyes saying; ‘Ma3leşe beyyi/immi’ (it is ok daddy/mummy) to avoid scolding. Isn’t it just amazing? Then he started to say tongue twisters and sing in Arabic.
            Enis started to distinguish the two languages at the age of three as we expected. He could now decide which language he had to speak considering the person he was addressing.  For example; he was speaking Arabic and Turkish with me and only Turkish with other people in his life. Also, he started to translate words between two lanaguges. For example he was saying; ‘Mum, Arabic Beyt (Ar.)- means Ev (House) in Turkish’. Or ‘kuş means asfur in Arabic’. ‘Halib süt (milk)’, ‘ahmar kırmızı’ (red), etc.
            Enis is three and half years old now. He can understand everything I tell him in Arabic. He talks to me in both languages. When he speaks in Turkish I repeat the same words in Arabic and he repeats what I say. He never gets bored doing it. Enis is aware of speaking a different lanaguge than his friends. He sometimes tells them Arabic words. I also speak with his friends in Arabic. They find it interesting and Enis likes it when they say some words in Arabic. It is nice to see that there is a sort of awareness developed towards Arabic and other lanaguges among the children and neighbours.
Our experience has had a positive impact on parents who hesitate about raising their children bilingual. They find our experience encouraging. They needed this model because parents who want to raise their children do not feel encouraged enough to start up. There are reasons for that. First of all, they are not informed enough about the process, they do not insist on sticking to one parent-one lanaguge technique (one parent speaks only one language), they have some fears mentioned above. Also some parents do not care about raising their children bilingual.
While speaking to Enis everywhere in my daily routine I received interesting reactions from people. I have realized that if you spoke to your child in a minority language you would usually get negative reactions. If the language was English, German or French it would be ok for people. I should note that the Muslim conservatives are exceptions in this issue since they treat Arabic as a sacred lanaguge. They praised my efforts and felt jealous of it when they heard me speaking Arabic with my son. The following reactions came from people in my life or on streets;
"You live in Turkey. Why do you still insist on teaching your child Arabic"
“What language are you speaking? Are you foreigners?”
"Don’t you think your child would be confused with two languages? Why don’t you teach him only Turkish?"
"Are you Syrians?"
"Why are you teaching the language of those Arabs?"
"How come can this little baby understand Arabic? Can he really?”
 “You are struggling so much to teach him Arabic. But you will see he will speak only Turkish.”
I was usually patient with a smile in my face and tried to give satisfying explanations to these reactions. Some of my reactions are as follows; “Arabic is my mother tongue. I would like to talk to my child just like my mother did with me”. ”There are lots of minority languages in Turkey and they are disappearing every other day”. It is a big loss for Turkey.” “Don’t worry. All children living in Turkey learn Turkish language”. ”Children learn two languages unconsciously. They never think that they are learning languages. When they grow up they start to distinguish the two languages and use them in proper situations”.” What’s wrong with speaking with an accent or speaking late? Is it more important than learning two languages?”. “I didn’t know a single word of Turkish until I was seven years old. Now, I can speak two languages fluently”. I am an Arab with Turkish citizenship. I am not a foreigner”. “I teach my son Arabic because I am an Arab. If I were a Circassia or Armenian or Greek I would teach their languages”. “Now, my son can understand Arabic very well. If I had spoken to him in Japanese he would have understood Japanese, too”. There is no miracle in this issue.”

Since people of my country are not used to the idea of multilingualism they give such reactions. I am not surprised actually. There are a lot of bilingual couples living in Turkey. However, not many of them raise their children bilingual. Once there are more bilingual families who raise their kids bilingual this issue will become something normal. In fact, the families who would like to raise their kids bilingual is increasing. To make this challenging process a little bit easy education ministry should submit laws and make some regulations to make bilingual education possible at schools.
I must say that I received not only negative but also positive reactions from people. The encouraging words from people have always made me feel stronger.
"How nice to see you teach your child your mother tongue. I wish I could do the same”.
“You child is growing up with two languages. He is so lucky”.
 “He really speaks two languages. Oh, that’s just amazing. I see It is possible.”
“I feel jealous of this child”.
“Can you tell me how you did this job?”.
Despite some difficulties we have had during the last three years, I should admit that it hasn’t been a very difficult process. It was because Enis was always with us and we looked after him in turns. So he was exposed to our conversations only. Now, we are having more serious problems. Enis started to go to kindergarten this year and he spends most of his time with his school mates, teachers and TV. He spends all his time with them during the day. So he is exposed to Turkish language only. Arabic is not around anymore. I have the chance to speak Arabic with my son only in the mornings, evenings and at the weekends. We have to do something to increase the level of Arabic exposure. So we try to open a kindergarten for my son and Syrian children. If the kindergarten turns to be real Enis will go both schools which are Turkish and Arabic kindergartens. Moreover, I spend more time with my son, talk to him longer, sing and read him more stories. I also visit Syrian families more often. However, it seems that we will face the real problem after a few years. When Enis starts primary school he will learn how to read and write in Turkish. That time he will also need to learn how to read and write in Arabic, too. I don’t have a certain solution for this problem yet. But the possibility that Turkish government will open schools for Syrians can be a solution for the parents like us. Maybe, Enis will have the chance of having education in Arabic thanks to the Syrians refugees. Isn’t it weird?

Enis has started to learn English at the kindergarten recently. His teacher is me as I am an English Language Teacher. He likes English and he is learning very well.  Is it because he has been raised bilingual? I think 'Yes'

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Mehmet Ateş
3 Mart 2016, izmir