Should my son learn Arabic?

The Curzons are currently resident in Dubai, and the question that appears as the title of this post has just come up. Curzon’s son, currently aged about 30 months, is attending an international nursery, and will have the option to learn Arabic starting next week. I am somewhat conflicted on this and thought I would share my thoughts with ComingAnarchy readers, to hear various opinions.

The pros and cons of him engaging in this are:

* Arabic is an important language, one of the UN’s six languages, and used across a large part of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
* The Middle East region will continue to be an important source of hyrocarbons and world energy supplies throughout his life.
* The Arabic writing system is used across Africa and Eurasia (even if it has been on the decline for the past two centuries), making it an excellent foundation to study other languages such as Farsi and Urdu.
* Lord Curzon has been dispatched to the Middle East for a period of 2-3 years, and I am almost one year into that secondment. We will probably be here until 2012 or 2013 or so, which gives my son several formative years to learn the language.

* My son may be too young to benefit from the experience.
* He is already coping with two languages and should be bilingual in English and Japanese, two languages that are both very difficult and very different from each other. It would be different if we were in a European country with a similar alphabet and with grammar and/or vocabulary simialar to English. Arabic introduces yet another completely different language, with an entirely different script.
* When we leave the Middle East, he may not have any opportunities to use it and could quickly forget anything he learns.
* We are in Dubai — English is the lingua franca, with surprisingly few opportunities to use Arabic. My workplace is 1% Emirati, 1% Sudanese, 1% Moroccan, 3% Saudi, and 3% Lebanese — less than 10% of the office is Arab. So despite what you might think, there are few opportunities to use it outside of the classroom.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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28 Responses to Should my son learn Arabic?

  1. Adrian says:

    I think he absolutely should. Kids that grow up bilingual have better brain development and I don’t see why that wouldn’t be even better with 3 languages.

  2. Paul says:

    Just out of curiosity what about the rest of your workplace, where do they come from?

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  4. Nat says:

    He should definitely learn it. The only one of your cons that involves any actual disadvantage for him is the second, and even that is pretty dubious. The rest boil down to the possibility that the gains might not be completely fantastic, rather than any actual loss.

    So what I mean to say is: what has he (or you, even) got to lose?

  5. Ed says:

    This is a well balanced post, but I think the con arguments are stronger.

    What clinches it is that he is already learning Japanese. Bilingual in English and Japanese is more than enough for your son to handle. What is mind-boggling is the idea that, despite growing up in the Persian Gulf, your son will probably have no opportunity to actually use Arabic. But having lived in the Gulf myself, I completely understand this.

  6. Curzon says:

    Paul, the breakdown is roughly:

    Great Britain: 50%
    India: 13%
    Australia: 11%
    South Africa: 9%
    New Zealand: 5%
    Saudi Arabia: 3%
    Lebanon: 3%
    UAE: 1%
    Pakistan: 1%
    Japan: 1%
    Sudan: 1%
    Canada: 1%
    United States: 1%

    This being a multicultural world, it’s even more complicated. 25% of the Brits have parents of different nationalities. The Canadian is Arab. The Saudis each have a non-Saudi mother. The South Africans are white and South Asian in origin. The Indians are so diverse that they speak English as their common language, as their languages are Tamil, Malayalam, and Gujarati — not Hindi.

    Welcome to Dubai.

  7. kurt9 says:

    What about Mandarin Chinese? The East Asian people (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) are a productive people. The muslim middle-east, by and large, is not.

    Consider the following:

    1) More books are translated into Japanese (and probably Korean) each year than has been translated into Arabic over the past 500 years.
    2) The muslim middle-east does not produce a single manufactured product to international standards.
    3) The amount of technological innovation and patents filed in the region is comparable to #1 and #2 above.

    When you go to any store, what countries are feature on the “made in _____” labels, on anything from textiles to high-technology products?

    It is reasonable to assume that the future will belong to the productive. Likewise, it is reasonable to assume that the future “languages of trade” will be those spoken by the most productive people in the future.

    I think these are the reasonable criterion to think about when considering learning a new language, especially by young people.

  8. Curzon says:

    Kurt9, the consideration is only one because the nursery my son attends offers Arabic. It does not offer Chinese (which would be more useful on a number of levels, one being personal — he has Chinese relatives).

  9. Paul says:

    I am a Malayali and lived in Dubai for 18 years. I moved back to India in 06 but am currently in London on a work assignment. Just FYI. We Malayalis dominate Dubai and indeed pretty much the rest of the UAE.

  10. Gorgasal says:

    Sorry, but: English difficult?

    I’d recommend that he go for it. I learned English when I was around three, forgot it all back home in Austria but still believe that this early immersion twisted my brain into a language-receptive shape; at least none of my relatives display the knack for languages I seem to be exhibiting (ahem!). If learning three languages is hard (yes, it is!), this will only delay his acquisition of vocabulary, not leave any permanent scars. And the script should not be a problem for quite some time, should it?

  11. Turkshead says:

    In programming, it’s said that once you’re fluent in three programming languages you’re basically fluent in all of them — especially if they’re three different *kinds* of language (object oriented vs structured vs functional, for example) — that is to say, once someone knows three, they can pick up another one fast enough to do a project in it. I wonder if the same thing is true of human languages? I’m an English-only myself (unless you count computers, natch) so I don’t really know.

  12. kurt9 says:

    Kurt9, the consideration is only one because the nursery my son attends offers Arabic. It does not offer Chinese.

    It must be my inner-Randian that prompted my previous post.

    Curzon, I would say this.

    If you plan to stay in Dubai a long time, by all means get your son to learn Arabic. Learning any foreign language is always preferable to not learning one at all, and by learning one while young, the brain gets conditioned to learning foreign languages more easily than would otherwise be the case.

    I say go for it.

  13. T. Greer says:


    Read this article on language acquisition.

    Reflect on what it says for a while. Will you have the resources further down along the line to ensure that your child will be able to maintain his Arabic skills, as outlined in the afore mentioned article?

    If not, don’t bother.

  14. Wataru says:

    Your Con arguments outweigh your Pro ones, although I disagree that he is too old for a third language; I would say too young. The biggest risk of throwing several different languages at a young kid is that he will grow up without a true mother tongue, a base language to call home. I have actually met people like that, who have problems in every language they know. Besides, he can always decide to study Arabic later on, if he is interested and sees the benefits.

  15. TS says:

    I say go for it. It’s not like preschool Arabic instruction will be exactly onerous, or a task-based, graded, high-pressure activity. It’s going to be just as much fun as everything else in preschool, just in Arabic. If he doesn’t remember it later, so what, he’s having fun in preschool. There is nothing to lose.

    Lots of people in sub-Saharan Africa grow up speaking 3 or 4 languages. It’s not unusual in the world, and I would debate some of the comments that suggest multilingualism is in any way difficult or stressful for children. Sure, they get confused, and some bi/multilingual kids start talking a little later than their monolingual peers, but there is no danger of any lasting damage.

  16. Joe Jones says:

    One of my favorite teachers in high school was married to a semi-retired Air Force colonel who taught IR at a local university and was particularly interested in the Middle East. In my first year of college, I had enrolled in ROTC with an eye toward going into military intelligence or attache work. I went back to my high school for a visit that year, and was telling said teacher about my career plans, to which she replied: “Good thing you studied East Asian languages. If you had studied Near Eastern languages, I would be worried!”

    I would suggest that he dip his toes into Arabic — maybe learn the alphabet and some basic words. I had a similar toe-dipping into Japanese in kindergarten, and it was a considerable boost when I started to seriously pursue the language years later. I agree with some of the commenters above that there is no need to force trilingualism on the kid at this stage, especially when you know he will need his first two languages but have no idea whether he will need the third.

  17. Vejadu says:

    I’d encourage learning Arabic – most of it will presumably be verbal rather than written at this point. Concur that “everyone” does seem to speak some version of English in Dubai. Not sure how you are maintaining Japanese fluency – but here is a suggestion. Select a dojo that enforces “Japanese only” for communication and then he’ll be exposed to a variety of Japanese speakers in a fun / different atmosphere where it is important to use the correct (basic) communication skills. And what are YOU doing to polish up your Arabic in the interim? Dubai has beaucoup Arabic stations – you can watch cartoons together for instance as an introduction to basic words. Then it is something you’re doing together. Final point – which dialect of Arabic are they teaching in nursery? Egyptian is more widely understood than Morrocan for example . . .

  18. Benjamin says:

    I’m with Joe here. Unless you mean that your son’s entire school day would be conducted in Arabic, I don’t see the harm in exposing him to the language. You’re just talking about classes, not about forcing him to use the language to the extent he does Japanese and English.

    I went to a kindergarten with Hebrew lessons and although I never progressed in the language enough to become proficient, I think the experience helped me when I studied other languages.

  19. “I don’t see the harm in exposing him to the language.”

    Exactly. Possible benefit, minimal cost.

  20. sigma1 says:

    From a cognitive point of view, I think I agree with a previous poster that it is unlikely to do harm to learning, but at such a young age when they are already dealing with two difficult languages, then the results might not be amazing. My feeling is that a third language, at least one that is not spoken in the house, could be introduced at around 4.

    But ultimately the issue is whether the child is having any frustrations in learning the first two languages. From the child’s point of view, their main goal is to be able to communicate with those closest to him/her. The degree to which any of those languages help with this also seems to determine the effectiveness in learning. Perhaps more importantly as a parent, is the child likely to undergo some stress? In the long-term kids can deal with 3 quite different languages. But in the short-term most parents do see multi-lingual kids being a little behind. How does this effect the child’s emotional and personality development?

    If you can see a hint of this with two languages, a third language not spoken at home or in daily life much will make this worse. If your child is already kicking ass and taking names in the first two languages, then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

  21. I want to elaborat that a little further. My kids range from 5 to 15. My observation is that it is impossible to fine-tune them. You start out with the first kid thinking all kinds of stuff is going to happen that you will decide for the kid, you will set the kid on a path in life. But they have their own minds and hearts, and they assert their individuality early and often. So, I found it is better to throw a lot of stuff at them, give them a chance to try a bunch of things, and see what they take to, what they like, what they seem to have a knack for. The kid may really like Arabic, or love his teacher and classmates and get excited about it. Or find it boring and retain nothing two weeks after the class ends. You cannot predict it. So, err on the side of trying stuff. If the kid gets overloaded, you can assess where to cut. But this sound like an easy call to just try it.

  22. Jupiter says:

    I’ve never heard anybody say “I really regret my parents having me learn all these languages when I was young”.

  23. von Kaufman-Turkestansky says:

    The fact that your child has a father who is asking this sort of question makes it seem more likely that everything will turn out fine, whatever you decide.

  24. Shanghai says:

    Your ‘pros’ are all great reasons that appeal intellectually, but none of them will be a motivating factor in whether your son actually learns arabic.

    Young children put huge efforts into learning their ‘mother’ tongue(s), because they want to communicate with someone important to them (their ‘mother’). They will spend all their waking hours trying to get a handle on this mysterious ‘code’ they need to crack. But you need to distinguish between ‘mother’ tongues and learning a language at school/nursery. If your son has an important arabic-speaking person in his life, great (but if so he’s already working hard on his arabic). If not, he’s probably too young to get much out of just classroom-based learning (and will definitely forget it once you leave that learning environment in 2012-2013).

    So if you really want him to learn arabic, find some way to get an ‘important’ arabic-speaker into his life. Even if he then forgets his arabic after you leave, the anecdotal evidence suggests people retain a native pronounciation of their lost ‘mother’ tongue for life, which would be useful if he re-learnt arabic later on.

    Your second ‘con’ is true in that learning another language takes effort and time, but I don’t think the concepts of ‘difficult’ or ‘different’ language really apply to children acquiring a ‘mother’ tongue. They just get on with it. Don’t let that put you off if you’re planning for your son to learn arabic as a ‘mother’ tongue. But it’s probably a solid reason against just classroom-based learning.

    Different writing systems is a bit of a red herring. Writing comes later and is a secondary skill (that takes a long time to acquire!), and isn’t a factor in complicating the acquisition of another spoken language.

  25. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    I completely agree with Lexington Green – You start out with the first kid thinking all kinds of stuff is going to happen that YOU will decide for the kid, YOU will set the kid on a path in life. But they have their own minds and hearts, and they assert their individuality early and often.

    So go for it – but if he shows animosity to it, let it wait…..

  26. Robert Ruzzell says:

    Go for it!! I wish i could learn arabic!

  27. Jose Angel de Monterrey says:

    In my opinion, if you live in an Arab country, or any other society that has opened its door to you and given you the opportunity to make a living and provide for your wife and kids. I think you should, as a matter of gratitude and self respect, learn the language yourself, which will help you embrace the country´s culture and understand it better and by example also let your son learn and embrace the language and culture too without any prejudice while at the same time maintaining yours (and his) as well.
    Even you do not intent to stay in that country permanently, this cultural experience will only enrich you son´s life forever.

  28. mtm says:

    My advice is to let him learn as much he likes.