We flew from Beirut to Abu Dhabi (“adi badi” as Rahul calls it) on Etihad Airways, the United Arab Emirates carrier, a couple of days ago. It was the first of 3 flights that would take us back to Chengdu.
A pretty, blond flight attendant with bright red lipstick guided Leila up a step and onto the plane. “Oh, they are so small,” she said, to no one in particular.
“They’re two,” I responded, not entirely sure what she based her judgment on.
A few minutes later, she walked by, offering us newspapers. For the first time since I’ve flown on a plane with my children, I bothered (dared) to take one. 4 out of 6 newspapers were in Arabic. I randomly picked The National, an English language UAE paper.
Well into the flight, Rahul fell asleep in Maher’s arms. Leila and I were hanging out. She was flipping through one of her books, so I pulled out the newspaper. The title action photo shot of a leopard pulling off a man’s scalp in Assam, India, was bewildering. The caption mentioned that they caught the leopard.
Overleaf was a picture of a baby, and an article about bilingual brain development. In the UAE people speak both Arabic and English, some also speak Hindi and Tegalog among other languages, because of the Indian, Filipino, and many other communities living and working in the UAE.
Universal translators, by Manal Ismail talks about the possible effects of bilingualism on babies brains. It discusses how cognitive performance in children up to five years old might be less developed in a bilingual child than in a monolingual one; but that by age five there would be a likely catching-up and overtaking phase. The article ends with the hypothesis that exposure to a second language “early enough” (that could range from up to 12 years old to up to 16 years old depending on the research) stimulates the right brain; the side that governs creativity. So the research is on by a professor at the American University of Sharjah to see if indeed bilingual children can be more creative than monolingual ones.
It took me all three hours of the flight to get through this, and the follow-up article about how that professor plans to implement a bilingual policy at a school in Berlin, and then try the same at a school either in Dubai or in Abu Dhabi.
My first interjection came from Ivana, the talkative Romanian flight attendant with bright red lipstick. She delivered us a tray of food, and attracted by baby on my newspaper, she peeked in. She asked what the article was about, and we plunged into a fifteen minute conversation about parenting. She is studying bilingualism and other topics in Child Psychology and Development at a University in South Africa, by correspondence, and claimed that babies can easily manage 5 languages. She lives in Abu Dhabi with her South African husband, for his work.
Rahul was asleep and Leila was still entertaining herself. Ivana and I went back and forth. That I was able to have such a conversation astonished me, and made me realise how things are evolving for us.
Ivana wants to have children. She can’t fly if she’s pregnant, so she’ll quit her job soon. The main reason to leave her work though are the long haul flights – 14, 16 hours to Sydney, Toronto, Chicago; they’re too tiring. She sometimes stays up 24, even 48 hours.
“I think I’ll be able to handle the nights as a new mum, after my job here.”
She inquired about IVF, and then went on to share parenting tips from her studies, observations, and from her magazine purchases in the UK! They were mainly along the lines of allowing children to be who they are; embracing their personalities and understanding that not everything our children do is reflects our parenting. I confirmed. My 2 same age children react to situations differently, even though I do almost the same things with them. They eat, sleep, fly, talk, play, and think differently.
She’s been watching the children on her flights for the last 2 years. Some sleep all the way, some are hyper-active, others read or watch movies, some eat, others don’t…
She said the Australian, British, and US kids often aren’t potty-trained until two, even three, whereas where she comes from, children are put on the pot from 6 months on.
I was amazed by all the “research” she’s doing. I didn’t know a thing about babies before I had my own.
It was obvious that Ivana really wants to be a mum, and I bet she’ll be a good one. She’s confident, excited about it, and full of energy. Already a solid start. Her main point, which I agree with fully, is to do it your own way; to take the tips, and then to adapt them to your own personality.
I was happy for the pleasant conversation, and momentary bonding.
When another, slightly irritated flight attendant called Ivana away, I returned to my food.
I changed Leila’s diaper. She fell asleep.
Rahul woke up.
Ivana had a short conversation with Maher and Rahul in French about their meal, and then an upbeat one about fashionable purses and shoes with 3 sisters in black outfits and hijabs (head coverings worn by some muslim women) across the aisle from us.
In the mean time I managed to read my articles.
The professor plans to have classes in both English and Arabic. So if they teach math in Arabic one day, the next day it will be English. Did you go to a bilingual school, or do your children go to one? Is this how it works at other bilingual schools?
Related article- Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language
Related site- http://www.multilingualliving.com/
Natasha lives in Chengdu, China with her husband and twin toddlers. They just returned after spending 3 weeks in Lebanon for Christmas and New Year with the children’s great-grandfather, grandparents, and uncles from their Lebanese side. They spent their time in a 200 year-old stone house, playing with dogs and eating way too much delicious food. Catch more of Natasha’s stories at Our Little Yogis, http://natashadevalia.com