Since I know that now Baby Simsim can hear my voice (and my heart beating, and my stomach churning), lately I’ve been reading a lot of research about what exactly she can hear in her watery bubble. There’s evidence that she can hear music, so around the house I have been playing and singing along to a lot of Elvis, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, George Strait, Jackie Wilson, Brad Paisley, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Taylor Swift…and of course, Hanson, among many others. (I admit to being torn about my rap collection, none of which is edited. I so want my daughter to understand the brilliance of Jay-Z, but I would feel like my quest to be a good mother has gone terribly wrong somewhere if it hinges on making sure my unborn child hears me declare belligerently, “I ain’t passed the bar, but I know a little bit, enough that you won’t illegally search my shit.” Then again, that might be beneficial for her later, should she choose to pursue a law degree, right? WWJZD?)
Even more fascinating than the development of a sense of music appreciation, there is ample evidence that actual language learning is happening in my tummy. I’ve always been fascinated by research about how babies acquire language, but apparently, it starts much sooner than that. Babies learn the rhythm of their native language(s) long before they are born; by the time they are born, they have already learned to cry in the rhythm of the languages they’ve been exposed to. Perhaps even more fascinating, by the time babies are born, the seeds of bilingualism have already been sown.
Of course, we also know that Baby Simsim can now hear loud sounds around me, including her dad’s voice, especially if he talks right next to my tummy. The problem with the research I’ve discovered so far about bilingualism in utero is that it all focuses on babies born to bilingual moms (who use both languages regularly). And sadly, although I wish I could call myself bilingual, I cannot. And I don’t want Simsim’s language development to be blighted by my atrocious cursory Arabic. Which is why I’ve been encouraging Saleh to speak and read to her in Arabic whenever he can, even though currently, as far as I can find, there is no research that really seeks to establish whether or not dads (or other family members) talking to babies in a second language in utero has any effect on their language development. (Come on, neuroscientists, get with the program! Or send me links to research I haven’t found yet. One or the other.)
When Saleh talks to Simsim, I think he mostly feels weird about it. Once, after he completed a lengthy conversation with her, he looked up at me sadly and said, “I feel like I’m talking to your belly button…and your belly button is ignoring me. Rude belly button!” But despite my belly button’s lack of manners, while Simsim is camping out behind it, I’m on a quest to foster her development in both languages. One of Saleh’s concerns before we were married is that his kids wouldn’t speak Arabic (“Babies always learn from their moms”–he’s got a point there), but he needn’t have worried. I’m just as determined for Simsim to speak Arabic as I am for her to speak English–perhaps more so, because I know she will speak English. Because of all the talking (and singing–okay, warbling) she hears from me, she’ll be born with the neurological groundwork set for English. And if necessary, when she gets older, I can work with her to help her acquire academic language proficiency in English (at least until she hits, like, junior high math. Then I’ll be useless). But I can’t do any of that in Arabic, which is also why I want her to go to school in Arabic.
I read to her all the time (there’s a wealth of research that shows this is beneficial), and now I’ve been making Saleh read to her every night in Arabic, as well.
So she’s getting a lot of language stimuli. (And lot of it obviously involves Eric Carle. And I think a tale of a mixed-up chameleon, whether in Arabic or English, will become all too appropriate for her life situation. Spoiler alert: the chameleon wants to be like all of the other animals at the zoo, but it soon finds that the only way it can catch the fly it wants to eat is by being its unique, colorful self.) But once she gets here, she’s sure to acquire some English vocabulary that she won’t get elsewhere. I can’t tell you if this is an advantage or a disadvantage to having Saleh and me as parents; I can only tell you that it is true.
When it comes to language, I’m a major admirer of my husband. Obviously, he speaks (and reads, and writes) English very well, enough to earn a graduate degree in the States in classes conducted entirely in the language, whereas here in Saudi Arabia, I become exceedingly proud of myself when I manage to successfully sound out the word “falafel” on a restaurant sign. But his English does have quirks. Adorable quirks. But, due to my training as a teacher, I assure you I have honored the unspoken code that binds me to gently correct him. But here’s the problem with being a teacher who fell in love with a language learner (okay, that sounds really Mary Kay Letourneau, but let me just be clear that we are very much in the same age bracket, and although we met in a language classroom, he was not my student)–everything he says wrong sounds so adorable. Even his accent is just so cute. And when it comes to quirks in his English vocabulary, there are some I can’t continue to correct because I’ve adopted them myself. Here are a few.
money laundry–(Noun.) A place where money is laundered. As in, “Whoever heard of a tiny, crappy rental car place like that renting out Bentleys? It’s obviously a money laundry.” Now tell me, native English speakers, why don’t we use this phrase? It makes so much sense. We talk about “money laundering,” “money launderers,” etc., so why isn’t the place where said laundering takes place called a “money laundry”? While ensuring that my daughter has sufficient vocabulary to accurately describe her financial crimes is not particularly high on my list of parenting priorities, it’s good to know that should she need this term, she will have it.
scissor–(Noun.) A pair of scissors. As in, “Habibeti, I can’t get this box open. Can you bring me a scissor?” For some reason, in my brain (and obviously, in Saleh’s), this makes a lot more sense to me than asking for “scissors.” I know there is a precedent in English for using plural words to describe something that is symmetrical but is actually only one thing (“pants,” “tweezers,” “tongs,” “clippers,” “shorts,” etc.), but for some reason, “scissors” is the one that now sounds really wrong to me when I say it out loud. So, like Saleh, when I need it, I now request “a scissor.”
snug–(Verb or noun.) To snuggle with someone or something, or to give snuggles to someone or something. As in, “I’m tired; I just want to lay on the couch and snug,” or, “Andy doesn’t look like he feels good. I think he wants snugs.” I’m not sure where this one came from in Saleh’s mind. I’m guessing he just shortened the word “snuggle.” You have to admit, if you’re going to talk about snuggles a lot, “snugs” does sound a touch more manly, as opposed to the incurably cutesy “snuggles.” And I suppose because we’re lame (and partly because we have two very affectionate dogs who like nothing more than to snug), “snug” is a word we use frequently, and if you’re going to talk about a concept a lot, I guess it could pay to save a syllable where you can, as long as both interlocutors understand. But however he got it, “snuggle” is not a word we say in our house, whether in verb or plural noun form. It’s been totally replaced by “snug” or “snugs.” And I’ve never heard either of us use “snug” as an adjective, the way I suppose it’s intended. Oh, well.
Tummies–(Noun.) Tums. You know, the heartburn medicine. As in, “Oh, I ate too many chicken tacos. Can you bring me some Tummies?” Again, I have no idea how this one came about. And since it actually adds a syllable, there’s no benefit of linguistic efficiency, and also, although I’ve done my duty and corrected Saleh before, I’m pretty sure he forgot about that and still thinks they’re actually called Tummies. It’s just really cute. And I don’t want him to change. You reading this, honey? They’re Tummies! Tummies! Don’t let anyone tell you differently, not even me!
Those are just a few examples of how the English language sometimes gets used in the Mostafa house. I can only hope that someday I have enough Arabic to create my own Arabisms like this, and maybe in some miniscule way I will entice Saleh to change the way he uses his language.
Saleh is so good at English that sometimes I forget that it really isn’t his first language, and he has gotten even better in the nearly five years that I’ve known him. He says that the only reason I think that is because I’ve gotten used to hearing him talk. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that he’s freaking awesome, so much so that I rarely remember that he’s not a native English speaker and thus I never modify my language when I’m around him, yet he always understands what I’m saying, and trust me when I say that when I get on a roll on a particular topic, I sometimes sound like this. He’s lamented before that his English must not be that good, because some Americans still have trouble understanding him. But even if they can’t understand him, they would do well to remember that he can understand them. (Most of the time. Although he’s got the Ozarks’ Appalachian-rooted dialect down, heavily Southern accents can still throw him sometimes.)
Lately, we’ve gotten into watching The Big Bang Theory. That and The Office are the only two current shows we keep up with. It took me awhile to convince Saleh that The Big Bang Theory was good. When I was still in the States, he watched an episode and declared, “It’s not even funny. I can’t understand anything they’re saying!” But when I got here, we downloaded the entire series thus far, and he got into it once he realized that the entire series is not based in scientific conversations that no one except Caltech physicists can understand.
One day when we were watching the show together, it clicked in my head that maybe he didn’t understand that part of the humor of the show lies in the way the guys talk mostly indecipherable science-ese. I wondered if maybe he thought that he was supposed to understand everything they were saying and that’s why he didn’t think it was very funny. After one segment where Penny rattled off a scientific speech to the amazement of the guys, I felt like a mean teacher as I turned to Saleh and demanded, “Did you understand what she just said?”
He looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights, and then sheepishly shook his head.
I replied, “That’s okay! No one really understands it, except scientists like them! Even Penny doesn’t understand what she just said. That’s why it’s funny!”
Why can’t they make an Arabic show that bases its humor at least partly on not being able to understand what the characters are saying? I’d be its biggest fan. Of course, for me, all it would take to make that show is to have kids standing in front of a camera counting past ten. I guess I’ve got a long way to go. I dream that someday I will be good enough at understanding Arabic that I can laugh at not being able to understand an Arabic Big Bang Theory. Here’s hoping.