They say the third time’s the charm. Does that apply to alphabets too? by Julie Fisher

Now that I have been living in Morocco for about three weeks, I have been able to notice many cultural differences between here and home. I have been away from the US since August, living in France and traveling around Europe, so I am used to different systems, customs, and comportment. I think that because I’ve been away for so long, I have really been able to look at the culture here from more of a rational standpoint, not being totally freaked out by it, but also being able to see more of the nuances. In this post, I will explain the most blatant cultural challenge I have had to deal with so far: language.

In this area of Morocco, the primary language is Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, and the second language- the language of business and the educated- is French. Although I am functionally fluent in French, I am one of the three people in the group who has never taken Arabic before. All the other students have taken a good amount of Modern Standard Arabic, AKA Fusha. The only problem with speaking solely French or Fusha is that some people don’t speak French, and Fusha isn’t spoken among the people (it’s only seen on printed materials and heard on widespread Arabic news channels like Al Jazeera). Of the Arabic dialects, it is probably the farthest from Modern Standard, and it is not even understood within the Arabic-speaking world outside of Morocco. So, all of us have had to start learning Darija. From what I have gathered from about two weeks of classes, it has words that stem from both Fusha and French, but a lot of the words are unique. It’s not standardized as far as writing goes, mostly only spoken.

One of the zillion cafés around Rabat, its name displayed  in two languages

One of the zillion cafés around Rabat, its name displayed in two languages

My experience with the few weeks of learning Darija has been quite difficult. For the other people who have had experience with Arabic before, they are picking it up quickly, and for people with a French background as well, they are learning it even faster. In class, we learn a lot of vocab, but I am learning many practical words at home with my host family. My roommate and I constantly hear and use words like labes (how are you), shukran (thank you), kuli (eat), haki (take), etc. We are always being spoken to in a mixture of mostly French and a little Darija, and I can tell that the proportions are going to shift in favor of Darija as we learn more words.

A mural in Asilah, a town north of Rabat. It says Hercules.

A mural in Asilah, a town north of Rabat. It says Hercules.

For the three of us who have never been exposed to Arabic, we are taking Modern Standard Arabic 101 as well. We just finished learning the alphabet, which was unexpectedly really fun. Having a totally different letter system kind of messes with your brain, but now that I can recognize letters and attempt to read things, I have loved (attempting) reading menus, signs, and even graffiti. Granted, I have no idea what these words mean, nor do I know if I am even reading them right because I have to guess at the vowels that aren’t marked.

A page from my Arabic textbook. It would take me hours to trudge through all these words now, but hopefully soon they’ll be a breeze.

A page from my Arabic textbook. It would take me hours to trudge through all these words now, but hopefully soon they’ll be a breeze.

They say that once you learn a foreign language, the next ones come easier, and I am finding that to be so true, especially considered that I learned the basics of another Semitic language, Hebrew, two years ago. Even though the Hebrew alphabet is nothing like the Arabic alphabet, I definitely notice similarities in the layout- like how vowels aren’t marked, writing left to right, and some of the basic grammatical structures.

Arabic has a lot of sounds that are not found anywhere in the other languages I have learned- for example, many of the noises you can only make in your throat. These include the more emphatic versions of other letters, and sometimes it is maddening trying to distinguish one sound from the other. To my untrained ear, a lot of them sound almost identical. Our host mom gets a kick out of trying to make us say words with the non-English sounds. She says them like they are the easiest thing in the world, and my roommate are sitting on the couch attempting to repeat, earnestly making any and all noises we think may resemble foreign sound. This usually ends up in excessive gargling or choking, and most of the time uncontrollable laughter. Oh well, I guess we’ll eventually get the hang of it. One of my goals is to be able to speak to a Moroccan without them replying back to me in either French or English, and although I’m a ways from that now, I hope that simply living in an environment where I hear Arabic 24/7 will bring me there faster than I think.


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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Julie Fisher, Morocco, Rabat

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