Saturday, January 11, 2014

In-Law Week, Day 6: Wife Needs To Find Common Ground - And Language - With Her In-Laws

Dear Tazi:

I am not fond of my in-laws. They are nice people, very warm and outgoing, so it is not like they never accepted me, its just that they do not speak English.

"Mr. and Mrs. P." are from Lebanon, and  only speak Lebanese Arabic, a dialect exclusive to their home country. During the civil war that tore through their country, they moved to Senegal, a country on the coast of West Africa where many Lebanese had resettled. Because their countrymen were already there, there was no need for them to learn the local language and that is what they did - or didn't, I should say.

Where God blesses the rain and
we all take the time to do the things we never have...
Mr. and Mrs. P. moved to America a few years later when one of Mr. P.'s brothers, who got out of Lebanon right before the war started, sponsored their immigration to America. Mr. P.'s brother had done very well for himself, living in Michigan, learning English, and working for the automotive companies. Mr. and Mrs. P. saw his success and jumped at the chance to join him.

Mr. and Mrs. P. have now lived in America for more than 30 years, and have done moderately well for themselves, especially when you consider that fact that neither one of them speaks a word of English! At my wedding to their son two years ago, they gave the toast in Lebanese and my uncle-in-law graciously translated, courteously adding that these were his sentiments, as well. Since that day, I have been expected to learn Lebanese Arabic. My husband has tried to teach me, but having been born and schooled in America English is his first language. He never had any formal training in Lebanese, just what his parents taught him and he learned to speak it as he learned English. However, he cannot read or write it so it is difficult for him to teach me. There are no Lebanese Arabic courses offered where we live, but there are plenty of ESL classes that my in-laws could take, if they showed the initiative.

My husband and I just found out that we will be expecting a baby in 2014 and we are very excited about it! I was somewhat upset that I could not tell my in-laws myself; that my husband had to tell them and I had to stand there and listen to them talk. I tried to catch a few words, but they spoke very fast and I could not understand. They seemed upset with my husband, but then turned to me all smiles. It turns out that they were concerned that my husband and I are too young to be parents (my husband and I are both 24).

I would like to have a better relationship with my in-laws, for the sake of my marriage and for the relationship that they will one day have with their grandchild(ren). I see their language slipping away as the world around them Americanizes and their language is lost to the new generations. I would like my husband to suggest to his parents that they start to learn English, but he is hesitant, saying "you can't teach an old dog new tricks". I will not leave them alone with my child knowing that they cannot speak English. What if there was an emergency and they needed to call the doctor or 911? My husband says I am overreacting, that the baby isn't even here yet and already I am borrowing trouble, but I just want to be prepared! Am I being unreasonable in wanting my in-laws to learn English? I'll even accept Spanish, considering its common use here in America! I studied the language in high school and college and am fluent enough to have a conversation.


Dear Mother-To-Be:

Your concerns are valid ones, but then so is your husband's argument. If his parents have not learned another language in the 30+ years since they have left Lebanon I doubt that they are suddenly going to try. As for your end, learning to speak a foreign language is difficult enough without said language being a locally spoken dialect in a country that is approximately 6,000 miles (9,500 km) away from you.

I suggest that you try to work on a few key words and phrases with your husband that you will need to be able to communicate with your in-laws. These phrases can be about their general health and well being or specific to the care of your baby. Your husband should also teach you to understand a few key responses to these questions so you will understand what is being said back to you. Since the modern Arabic alphabet is not something you understand, write down the words phonetically with their English translation beneath them. Your husband needs to do the same for his parents, except to have them write the words in Arabic with the English phonetic pronunciation. With any luck, his Arabic will improve as much as yours. There are many online translation programs that can help you get started, as well as learn-at-home programs like Rosetta Stone, if you are willing and able to make the financial investment. Think of it as an investment in your child's culture as well as an investment in family unity.


Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with Bachelors degrees in Communications and in Gender and Women's Studies. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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