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Why it's hard for Arabic-speaking parents to read to their kids, and a New York mom's quest for a solution

Cairo — Economist Riham Shendy started collecting children's books when she was expecting her twins. An Egyptian married to a German and living in New York, she was determined to teach her children her own native language, Arabic. But she found it wasn't as straightforward a task as many people would expect. 

Riham Shendy reads with her children at their home in New York.  Courtesy of Riham Shendy

Arabic, which is spoken in more than two dozen nations, actually functions as two connected but separate language systems.

Arabic isn't just one language

"It's like we speak modern English but write Shakespearean English," Shendy told CBS News. "It's a bit further than that — let's say we speak French but we write in Latin."  

Spoken Arabic (SpA) comes in a wide range of regional dialects. The Tunisian, Moroccan and Egyptian Arabic used in everyday life, to name just a few, all have significant differences — to the extent that two speakers from different countries may barely understand each other.  

However, if the same two people are given a transcript of what they're saying in the written form of Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA), they should both fully understand it. This provides common ground for literate Arabic speakers across a huge swath of the globe.   

Author Maya Payne Smart on literacy guide for parents 04:22

The majority of Arabic books, including children's books, are written in MSA. But children generally don't start learning MSA unless and until they go to school, so reading to them in the early years presents a challenge. 

How to read to children in Arabic

Many parents who want to read to their young children, including Shendy, try to translate the books for their kids in real time, pausing constantly as they read to convert the written MSA they've just scanned from a page into whatever spoken form of Arabic they use at home.   

For small children, the jilted delivery can be not only confusing, but extremely disengaging. 

"I started by translating on the spot. Then I noticed that when my husband reads to our kids in German, they would finish his sentences, but they didn't with me," Shendy recalled to CBS News. "I realized, oh, every time I translate, yes, it's more or less the same meaning, but I don't use the same exact words in the same order, and if I am tired or lazy, I might even skip a detail or two." 

Riham Shendy reads with her children at their home in New York.  Courtesy of Riham Shendy

Unsatisfied with the experience, she sought another solution.  

Shendy wrote down her translations in SpA, using words she normally would to communicate with her kids, printed it out and bound them to the book itself.  

It "looked awful," she admitted. But, "it worked! The kids started finishing my sentences like they do with my husband."  

So, Shendy set to work creating her own small library, translating English children's books into Egyptian spoken Arabic. Then her friends started asking for copies, and then friends of friends. 

Ultimately, she uploaded the translations to her website, along with her "recipe" for creating the text. 

Riham Shendy's instructions for how to translate children's books into Egypt's colloquial dialect of spoken Arabic, from her website Tuta-Tuta. Tuta-Tuta/Riham Shendy

When a bestseller isn't good enough

Shendy offered her translations, free of charge, to three of the biggest publishers in Egypt, but they all turned down the offer, explaining that they didn't publish children's books in spoken Arabic.  

For the next 11 months, she went down a rabbit hole learning about the issue. She wrote an academic paper and self-published her first book, "Kan Yama Kan" ("Once Upon a Time"), an Egyptianized collection of international folktales from the public domain, all in SpA.

When Shendy, who has a PhD in applied economics, did the math, she was sure that with more than 30 million children in Egypt, a good quality book in spoken Arabic was sure to sell. She figured publishers would see the success, replicate it, and the problem she encountered along with so many other Egyptian parents would be solved. 

The book was a success. It was even a bestseller in Egypt. But Shendy's economic predictions were off.   

"Not a single publisher contacted me. Nothing!" So, she did it again. She published a second edition and two new books. They all sold out in less than a year. But still, there was nothing from publishers. (See her meticulous process in her Instagram video below.)

While the book was a bestseller in Egypt, the bar is pretty low: It sold only around 1,000 copies per year.   

"People would tell me, 'You are selling more children's books than the biggest publishers in Egypt!'" recalled Shendy. "I'd say, 'True, but we are both doing very poorly!' When I think that a title is only reaching 1,000 kids a year, I am not satisfied." 

The low distribution numbers may help explain why publishers tend to shy away from spoken Arabic. At least for texts printed in MSA the market is significantly larger, as they can sell to schools and individuals across the entire Arabic speaking world.  

Shendy lamented that while "the tradition of oral storytelling died" long ago in Egypt and other Arab nations, it "was not replaced by reading books. The idea of sitting and reading to your child is just not something we do."  

"Many parents spend money on cake and juice in a shopping mall, but they won't buy a book for a child. That upsets me, and I feel I am too small to tackle this. I am just one person in the end," she said in frustration. "I am talking here about the upper-middle-class who imitate the West in everything. They eat blueberries, quinoa… Why don't they imitate the West in reading? Why?"   

Giving up, almost

As the books her growing children were reading got longer, Shendy couldn't keep up. Translating a novel just to read it once to your kids in your own dialect doesn't make sense, especially if they understand English.  

"I am not going to deny my children all these amazing English books and expect them to wait six months until I translate a novel," she said. "I have decided to go for content over form! Sadly, I had to drop Arabic as the priority."    

Shendy feels that, in her experiment, both she and her native language have lost. But she isn't giving up completely.  

"I failed relative to my husband, who has succeeded in teaching our kids to speak and read in German from just German bedtime stories," she said. 

Shendy has shifted her focus to trying to help other parents.  

"What I do now does not help my own kids, but I do it hoping that I am helping another mom down the road to avoid being in the same position," she said. "No mother should go through this."  

Does it get better when children go to school? 

The complications that Arabic's many dialects present for parents with children's literature also have much broader implications for longterm literacy across the Arabic-speaking world.  

Without understanding the language books are written in, everything else is harder for children to learn, and that may have a lasting impact.    

According to the World Bank's "learning poverty indicator," 59% of children across the Arabic-speaking world, rich and poor, are unable to read and understand an age-appropriate text by the age of 10. In Egypt, data show an alarming 69% of children don't fully understand what they're reading.   

Shendy noted a study on Palestinian children that found only 20% of MSA and Spoken Arabic vocabulary overlapped, and while 40% of the vocabulary was similar or had the same roots (such as "night" in English with "nacht" in German) the other 40% of words were completely different words (think words like "fall" and "autumn" in English).  

Is there a solution? 

Shendy and others believe children's books should be available in spoken Arabic, and even that it should be taught in schools from a young age, before students make the shift to MSA, but some experts reject the argument.  

"There is an elephant in the room that no one is paying attention to in Arabic, and that is teaching quality, content and methodologies," Hanada Taha, endowed professor of Arabic Language Education at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates, told CBS News. "We need to come up with engaging content and fun and kid-friendly methods to bring MSA closer to the kids' daily life."   

Taha argues that as kids will have to learn MSA anyway "to access the vast body of knowledge written in the past 14 centuries," it's better to introduce it even earlier by using words common to both MSA and spoken Arabic dialects when writing for children, and to keep it as simple as possible "to help kids make the shift."  

Exposing children to more SpA, and more formally, could make it harder for them to learn MSA later, Taha said. 

"The kids have the dialect at home. There is no shortage of dialect for a native learner in an Arab setting," she said. "What they really need is that exposure to fun and simplified content in MSA."  

Her response to people pushing for children's books in spoken Arabic dialects and faulting MSA for low literacy rates was simple and frank:

"They do publish books in Spoken Arabic, there is no ban on writing in Spoken Arabic! But how many copies are books written in Spoken Arabic selling?"  

This argument over the potential merits of publishing and teaching spoken Arabic versus MSA is not new, and there are those who advocate for a complete separation between the two, suggesting that one form of the language should be abandoned entirely in favor of the other.

Taha finds that discouraging, too. 

"The idea that it is either/or I think is very short-sighted. We belong to a language that has two forms, and we go in and out of both forms all the time, everyday," she said. "We need to educate people, we need to spread awareness, we need to stop fighting about the language itself, embrace what our language is about and change our practices and attitude."

While using MSA or SpA is sometimes just a market decision, teaching it in schools, academic debates aside, is also a political decision. 

Some see the idea of promoting Spoken Arabic as an attack on Islam, since the language of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, is the basis for MSA. 

Some see Spoken Arabic as a corrupted form of the language that can never convey the richness of MSA. But others see that argument as part of a conspiracy aimed at dividing the Arab world.  

In the meantime, many parents are left to find that it's not that easy to just open a book and read to a child.  

There's a common saying in Arabic that suggests "small children create problems and grownups suffer the consequences." 

In reality, it's almost always the other way around.   

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