Q&A with Dr. Reem Khamis-Dakwar: Empowering families to reclaim minority languages with LENA Start


Dr. Reem Khamis-Dakwar is a professor of Speech Language Pathology and director of the Neurophysiology in Speech-Language Pathology Lab at Adelphi University. She initiated the launch of LENA Start in New York City to families in communities that speak minoritized languages, namely Spanish and Arabic. The program is focused on empowering parents to maintain their native language use with their children. LENA Start supports parents in their language policy planning from a strengths-based perspective that recognizes the different benefits of bilingualism and the social barriers of the linguistic homogeneity in the United States. We caught up with Dr. Khamis-Dakwar to learn more about her work using LENA:

Why is LENA Start a good fit for your community?

There’s a lot of power in getting people with shared experiences together. I have a strong belief in this based on my personal experience — I was the only Arab student in every level of my studies, from my BA to my master’s degree to my doctorate. I know that to develop a lot of the ideas I’ve had, I needed to talk to other people who have similar, shared experiences (not necessarily Arabs in my case). I learned a lot from scholars working on the language-literacy mismatch in African American communities, and a lot from scholars who are working on anti-racist education and culturally responsive early education.

So as I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the power of shared experiences, I wanted to create a space for that in the community. The linguistic homogeneity of the United States has made it difficult and challenging to maintain minority languages at home and use them as children grow older. These are not just minority languages, these are minoritized languages. Losing these languages means losing advantages that come with them, such as the communicative, cultural, and cognitive benefits. Providing LENA Start training was a way to advocate for linguistic empowerment and to empower families to advocate for their linguistic base needs and for bilingual linguistic policies.

What are the considerations for launching a new program like LENA Start with a vulnerable population?

Dr. Reem and her team smile for a photo.It’s important that you make families feel valuable, and that you are doing things for them — not because you want to get paid, or you got a grant, or you’re going to do research — but because you really care for them. This is especially important with minority groups, because there’s always a suspicion of a hidden agenda — some purpose for the program beyond what is stated.

As we coordinated with local NGOs at the beginning, we got a lot of questions about who is funding the program, and why we were running it. People were calling and asking others about me, asking if it’s safe to work with me. At first, I was frustrated, and I didn’t understand. But I’ve learned to put myself into the shoes of the organization. Arab, Muslim, and immigrant populations have been targets of surveillance, and just choosing to be supportive of a certain program might be politicized. So now I look at it differently, recognizing that each organization is just trying to protect the families they’re serving. It’s important to be really transparent.

During our recent webinar conversation, you described LENA Start as an anti-racist program. What do you mean by that?

One of my best friends, Tara Lencl, is a PhD student at Teachers College, and I often have these conversations with her. At one point, when discussing the criticism of programs developed to address the “word gap,” I asked Tara whether she thought the work I am doing is anti-racist. Well, we went over her definition of anti-racism, and we agreed that such work must stem from an overall understanding of the historical and social context of minoritized parents’ experiences while dismantling racist practices of linguistic homogeneity in the United States.

Racism is defined by power. Especially the power of language in minority communities. The clear manifestation of this power dynamic is that bilingual minorities must assimilate into American society, part of which means fading out minorities’ native languages. The way I see it, to be an anti-racist is to fight back against such imperialistic and colonialist tendencies. With LENA Start, families are empowered to value their native languages and maintain them across generations. Our work must always be centered around the targeted families and their children within a strengths-based approach. We can attempt to do this by facilitating parents’ meaningful participation across language policy, pedagogy, and practice.

Racism is defined by power. Especially the power of language in minority communities. The clear manifestation of this power dynamic is that bilingual minorities must assimilate into American society, part of which means fading out minorities’ native languages. The way I see it, to be an anti-racist is to fight back against such imperialistic and colonialist tendencies. With LENA Start, families are empowered to value their native languages and maintain them across generations.

-Dr. Reem Khamis-Dakwar

When we think in terms of anti-racism, we also place responsibility on the system, not the parents. We can see that the system is failing certain groups, and the numbers back this up. That means we need to work on dismantling practices that perpetuate inequality and that are dismissive of the parents’ and childrens’ shared experiences as part of a linguistically-minoritized community. This can be achieved by empowering parents and assuring them that they know their kid best while also questioning and organizing against policies and pedagogies that are not a good fit for them. But Tara and I agreed that the most important aspect of anti-racist work is that it is an ongoing and active process. This means evolving as we learn from and with the families about the rich language and literacy practices they already engage in.
To fulfill this evolution, one needs to recognize the diversity within each group, and not subscribe to monolithic stereotypes about a group. It’s being able to look at families and understand that they have their own context for why they are talking more or less, and realizing that they may be interacting with their children in another way that is not visible in the data.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly to this process, is the need to be empathetic to each family’s background. There’s no singular method to parenting, and that is made clear in the LENA report. We do not tell families what to do, we just hand them the data, and if they want to talk to us, they can. This is really important to me. If there’s a working mom with three kids, and she’s super tired, you can’t pester her about missing an hour. It has to be a willingness that comes from within, and something that’s realistically possible for that person.
Arabic mother playing with little boy
How did you adapt LENA Start for Arabic families?
We really have lots of work to do in the adaptation. We piloted LENA Start to learn from the experience with the families about what needs to be done moving forward. There were simple questions that we needed to answer, and there were larger questions that we needed to address. For example, when we started to translate the Talking Tips into Arabic, it was difficult, because Arabic has gendered agreement – we talk differently to her or him. Personally, I wanted to have this distinction, but it made the tips too confusing, so we instead ended up using “them,” but that was a simple issue to address.
My graduate assistant, Iman Salam and another colleague from Teachers College, Afaf Alkhoshman worked together on the preliminary translation of the material. There is still lots of work to be done in refining and reviewing these translations, but we had larger questions related to the use of the videos. The curriculum videos were not translated nor adapted to the parents’ culture because there was no budget for that. Some of the videos were not representative of what was happening in Arabic-speaking homes. The artifacts were not artifacts that were familiar to them — for example, the family in the video may be cooking a different type of food than our families would, or parents in the video were taking their kids to the library with such confidence, when some of our parents reported they were afraid of being harassed walking into the library wearing Hijab.
So, to address this mismatch between the artifacts and events, we spoke explicitly with the parents, saying, “Things might look a little unfamiliar, but try to see what you can get out of it that you can do within your own home.” We acknowledged it, rather than only presenting it and hoping that they can figure out what is going on themselves. What was more rewarding is that this acknowledgment gave parents the opportunity to talk about their own experiences comparative to the ones shown in the video, and this open discussion was insightful and led to actions — such as a decision the parents made to go together to the library every week. This is exactly what made it workable. I would not be surprised if I hear these parents organized and are now asking the library to have Arabic children books for them and for their children. The families’ strength inspired me and the team, and we learned from them a lot.

Webinar: Building culturally responsive, strengths-based programming across languages: Approaches from Denver and New Zealand

We heard from program leads in Denver and New Zealand about the approaches they have used to build culturally and linguistically responsive programming.

Stream the webinar now! 
What advice do you have for another site that is considering working with a minority group or a vulnerable population?
I definitely recommend working with organizations that are active in the community, and not to devalue the importance of having their support. I also recommend giving a lot of time to connect with the community before starting to implement the program. It is critical to spend time building connections, creating a repertoire, and feeling comfortable to bring new ideas.
And most importantly, listen — listen to what people are saying and ask questions. Don’t think you’re coming in with the answers, knowing what will work and how it will work. It won’t work if you’re coming in with that attitude. You have to go in, listen, and be flexible.
Definitely make sure that you’re inclusive, in the sense that anyone who is willing to help and be part of the project should be given an avenue to support. It should be a community initiative. And finally, it can’t be one person talking as if it’s their own initiative and the success is theirs. This is a way to build community and to be collectively empowered.


The LENA Team is a dedicated group of professionals who are passionate about increasing awareness of the importance of early interactive talk. We are statisticians, speech-language pathologists, curriculum specialists, engineers, and linguists.

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