Thursday March 21, 2019 By: Riham Shendy
As an intercultural couple living in the United States of America, my husband and I share strong aspirations to raise our children connected to their roots. It was important to us that our children spoke our mother-tongues to be able to communicate with their families and recognize and embrace their cultural heritages. Not to mention that being multilingual in a world that has become increasingly competitive would serve them well, especially that expertise in languages like French and English no longer stood out. Hence, it became imperative for us to speak to them regularly and consistently in our respective languages, in order for them to learn to speak both Arabic, and German, my husband’s native language.
From the onset of my pregnancy with our twins, I started collecting Arabic children’s books. I bought books during my visits to Egypt, had family members carry them across the Atlantic when visiting, and I also ordered tons of books online. I must have collected at least 40 children’s books by the time Ali and Leila were born. Following recent scientific advice on the importance of reading to children from very early age, I pulled these books out when my children were about 6 months old to start reading to them. Until that point it had not struck me that all these books — that I had long stocked and very much cherished — were in fusHa Arabic; a language that I was neither using with my children nor trying to teach to them at such young age. I put the books back on the shelf, to pick up again when the twins were about 3-year-old. I found myself still paralyzed by overwhelming feelings of how inadequate the fusHa language was for such young-aged children.
For a while I alternated between two reading techniques. I started by reading the fusHa text, then translating it into the spoken a’amiya, but by doing so, a significant amount of our time was spent on defining and explaining the many unfamiliar words. Consequently, I skipped reading the fusHa text altogether and resorted to translating it on-the-spot to a’amiya. The effort to simultaneously read and translate the text somewhat discouraged me from reading regularly to them. I also felt impatient and less present for other important parts of the reading experience — like answering their inquisitive questions, discussing the illustrations, reflecting on the story plot …etc.
The other challenge I experienced was related to the repeated interactive reads of the same storybooks, which children are known to enjoy due to the increased predictability of the story with repetition. As I made up the text every time — unintentionally changing wording, phrases and even dropping some details altogether — I took away from the text familiarity and the language predictability that children specifically enjoy. I saw the stark difference between my reading experience with our children and my husband’s ease of commitment to reading more than one storybook each night and their engagement in finishing his lines. This was even more evident in books written in rhymes which are common for young ages, an option that was not even available to me.
I was off work at that time, and being an extremely persistent person, I started to create my own books. I fell in love with modern “foreign” books that were fantasy-based, written in rhymes, and with concealed moral messages. I started translating these books into colloquial Egyptian rhymes to read to my children. I also extended to translate many of the big children classics. As I realized that many Egyptians shared the same desire to read to their young children books in the language they effortlessly understand – a’amiya, I started my website Tuta-Tuta to share my translations.
Through Tuta-Tuta I was delighted to hear from Egyptian mothers living aboard and looking for ways to expand their children’s Egyptian language vocabulary beyond the words used in daily chores. I heard from Egyptian men living abroad, some married to “foreign” women, who were desperately looking for an easy way to expose their kids to Egyptian Arabic after a long day’s work. I also heard from “foreigners/non-Arabs” who were trying to learn Egyptian Arabic and needed simple kid-level material to practice. But the most pleasant surprise was the messages I received from Egyptian mothers living in Egypt, who were aware of the importance of reading to children from young age, yet challenged by the lack of linguistically age-appropriate material in the Arabic language.
Admittedly, there are many wide benefits of reading to children that are likely forgone by the exclusive focus on producing only fusHa books; or benefits perhaps lost by reading for solely literacy development. These benefits deserve significantly more attention. Reading aloud to children from a young age is proven to broaden their attention span, lower risks of developing hyperactivity, develop listening skills, and increase vocabulary development and language comprehension. It enhances their cognitive abilities as the child follows the story’s plot and characters, and it fosters communication as stories and illustrations are discussed.
During the experience of listening to a story, children broaden their imaginations beyond their own immediate milieu, experiencing other people, places, times, and events. Through a story, a child acquires factual knowledge and learns how the world works, indirectly and effortlessly. Furthermore, stories can provide an excellent means for children to develop empathy and contemplate ethical questions as they get deeply engaged with the story’s characters. First and foremost, reading-aloud to children provides a treasured quality time together with the parent and promotes our children’s love for books. Children whose early encounters with books are enjoyable are more likely to develop a predisposition to read frequently and broadly in subsequent years.
While the preeminence of fusHa is uncontested, there is a dire need to make a’amiya books available along with those in fusHa, allowing parents to choose which they want to read and for what purpose. For example, in the intimate setting of a bedtime story, reading fusHa may strip familiarity and pleasure from the experience, making it more instructional than leisurely. We should not deny our children the joy of effortlessly listening to a story in their familiar language, an experience that children around the world enjoy.
So, on this very special day, Mother’s Day, I wish to remind all loving mothers to cuddle up and snuggle with their little ones and enjoy reading a story together, one that may possibly take your child on a fun journey or an imaginative world. And while Tuta-Tuta may be one of the small first steps towards advocating reading to our young ones in a’amiya, it is my hope that Egyptian publishers will lead the way in mainstreaming this genre of books.
Photos courtesy Riham Shendy
About Riham Shendy: Founder of Tuta-Tuta.com, a website that streams audio and video Colloquial Egyptian Arabic rhyming translations of popular “foreign” children’s books. Riham received her Bachelor degree in Economics from the American University in Cairo, after which she worked for five years in the Credit Department of the biggest private bank in Egypt. She decided to pursue her studies and received a Master of Science (MSc) in Quantitative Development Economics from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and a Doctorate Degree (PhD) in Applied Economics from the European University Institute in Italy. From 2008 to 2018, she worked at the World Bank in Washington DC, in the Human Development Network (on Education & Social Protection) and in the Financial and Private Sector Development Network. She is a published author in peer reviewed academic journals and has various analytical studies published by international organizations (The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund). Most recently, in February 2019, Riham published the paper “The Limitations of Reading to Young Children in Literary Arabic: The Unspoken Struggle with Arabic Diglossia,” in the academic journal Theory and Practice in Language Studies. It is the first study to address the challenges of reading stories to children in a language diglossia situation.
***If you liked this article, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter and receive our articles by email.