Why My Jewish-Israeli Son Speaks Mainly Arabic

Even though neither my husband nor I understand it.

Sarah Knopman
Sarah Knopman
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Sarah and her trilingual son, Zac.
Sarah and her trilingual son, Zac.Credit: Sarah Knopman (courtesy)
Sarah Knopman
Sarah Knopman

My two-and-a-half-year-old son is trilingual (Hebrew, English, Arabic). The thing is, neither my husband nor I (nor anyone else in our extended family, for that matter) understand his third language, which, funnily enough, has turned out to be his most fluent.

My son’s three languages are all his mother-tongue languages. I have always spoken to him in English, my husband has always spoken to him in Hebrew, our eldest son has always spoken to him in a mixture of the two, and, well, this is where it might seem strange, but his caretakers at his daycare have always spoken to him in Arabic.

Yes, I get it – it’s unusual. I get it – it’s not the done thing around here. If it were, our son would not be the only Jewish kid at a "mixed" Christian and Muslim, Arabic-speaking daycare, 10 minutes away from the heart of Tel Aviv. I will admit I surprised myself, too, when my husband and I decided to send him there from the early age of 5 months old (you can call it a social experiment of sorts). At this daycare, he would learn about and celebrate all the holidays, with all the accompanying customs and rituals, music and food, whether they be Hanukkah, Purim, Tu Bishvat, Independence Day, Easter, Christmas, or Ramadan. He would also be totally immersed in Arabic for approximately 50 hours per week for two years.

This scenario seems to be a lightning rod for discussion. Sometimes the reactions are positive, with people saying complimentary things such as we’re pioneers or that we’re brave, and we’re leading the way for how the next generation of Israeli children should be brought up. At other times it sparks a prejudice that I want nothing to do with, but which I find hard to avoid.

From the outset, being trilingual wouldn’t seem like such a strange thing in certain countries, or under certain circumstances. My Russian-born mother, for example, who moved to Poland at age 6 and migrated to Australia at age 12, is trilingual (Russian, Polish, English). However, I am not living in Europe, among open-minded, progressive people, where multilingualism is common. Nor am I living today where I was raised, in easy-going Australia, where if you’re going to learn another language, it might as well be French or Chinese or Japanese, or something understandably pragmatic or useful for business. No, I live in politically-charged Israel, where, for the past 10 years of my life, I have carved out a fairly peaceful and fulfilling home for myself and my husband and now our two sons in liberal Tel Aviv, among tolerant (on the whole), albeit opinionated, Israelis. Israelis, who, for the life of them, cannot understand why on earth we would want our son to learn Arabic. "What possible good would it serve him?" they ask.

We have been told off (oh yes, more than once), and our parenting techniques have been questioned. Sometimes, when people are so quick to jump to conclusions that we are “ruining the child,” “confusing him,” “giving him an identity crisis,” “delaying him developmentally,” or God forbid – for the non-dramatic among us – “sending him straight to Hamas,” I just feel like shouting to these people, "Shalllllommmm, have you not noticed what region of the world we live in?" Arabic is only the fifth-most-spoken language in the entire world, with 295 million speakers worldwide, not to mention that it’s one of the six official languages of the United Nations. No, he is not learning Arabic so that it will help him in business in the ultra-globalized world of his future (although who knows?). It runs much, much deeper than that.

For a country in which 21 percent of its population of 8.35 million is Arab, and in which Arabic is the second official language, adorning street signs and used by public institutions and government offices everywhere, I have always found it strange that so few Israelis speak Arabic. Rather, Arabs are expected to learn and understand Hebrew. For me, this screams of astounding self-imposed segregation.

Perhaps it is fortuitous that there is a new legislation being proposed wherein the Education Ministry plans to roll out a program aimed at improving Arab students' Hebrew-language skills, starting in kindergarten. Likewise, a Knesset member has proposed a bill requiring Israeli pupils to study Arabic from first grade onward. “Just as it cannot be that Arab citizens complete 12 years of school without knowing Hebrew, the existing situation, in which Jewish citizens complete 12 years of school without knowing Arabic, cannot continue,” wrote the Knesset member.

I honestly believe that knowing Arabic will help my son to better understand Israeli Arabs’ culture and social codes – and vice versa. Knowing the language of the other is the basis for understanding and mutual respect, which are sorely needed in the current situation in Israel. It’s not rocket science to realize that knowing the language and being able to communicate with different people can increase our sense of security and serve as a bridge between people, as well as narrowing social gaps. If we want our children – all the children of Israel – to respect others as equals, regardless of religion and race, we must recognize this: It all starts with dialogue.

Sarah Knopman, from Sydney, Australia, lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and two young sons. She is a director of media relations and communications at a non-profit organization, dedicated to opening access to higher education globally.

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