The Language of the Hour

I came to Morocco because I wanted to improve my Arabic. There were more complex reasons for choosing this country for sure, when it came right down to it that was my goal: learn more Fusha. Now, after over ten weeks in Morocco, I can say that I am successfully accomplishing this goal but not at all in the way I expected. The Fusha I am learning is just one facet of a wide range of linguistic experiences that I have either enjoyed or struggled through, depending on the time.

The Moroccans I have met are generally incredibly linguistically competent. I, like many Americans, was raised speaking just one language. I started learning French in middle school, and that felt like such a huge step to me. My host brother, a middle schooler, speaks French, Darija, Modern Standard Arabic, and even a little bit of English. At twelve years old, he already knows more languages than I do, which sometimes feels a little bit embarrassing since I spend so many hours each day learning vocabulary words! Simply by virtue of the way life in Morocco is structured, most people are easily bi- or even trilingual. Darija, the dialect of Arabic spoken here, is used in daily life and interactions, while the news is in Fusha or French. Here in Rabat many restaurants seem to operate in French, and people often speak to me in French when they see me, assuming (rightly) that I will know how to respond.

Working on Arabic homework in the student lounge.

Working on Arabic homework in the student lounge.

Needless to say, my language goals have changed somewhat since I have been here. Nobody actually speaks Fusha when buying bread at a hanout or haggling for scarves in the medina. Thus, though it was never my explicit intention, I have been slowly but surely picking up Darija as I hear it so routinely in daily life. My language skills have reached the strange place of being able to understand a fair bit of Darija but only being able to competently respond in Fusha.

I have recently had multiple very interesting but absurd discussions with my host family conducted in this odd jumble of languages. Our host parents speak to us exclusively in Darija, or in French when I look too thoroughly confused, so oftentimes I still struggle to follow the conversation. Especially when my siblings start arguing rapid fire with each other – when Yousra speaks quickly, all hope is lost. However, when my host parents discuss topics like their extended family or news events, I can usually understand them. Then comes the struggle of forming a thought in Arabic and communicating it in my Fusha with Darija verb conjugations and simple vocabulary sprinkled in.

While visiting the Rabat zoo last weekend, I had fun reading the names of  animals in both Arabic and French.

While visiting the Rabat zoo last weekend, I had fun reading the names of animals in both Arabic and French.

The stark range in the level of language I use throughout the day is another peculiar fact of my life here. My Fusha professor once had me explain my summer astronomy research to her in Arabic and in my French Literature class we talk about issues such as gender stereotypes and homophobia. However, in the evenings when I want to ask for a clean towel or talk about the weather, I have to prepare in advance the Darija sentence I want to use. The language barrier can be frustrating, I won’t lie, but despite the many times I have tried to explain myself and drawn a complete blank I still look forward to returning to the apartment and conversing with my family each night. The constant language struggle is overshadowed by the dance parties I have with my host sister and the endless adventure of living with a family.

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Filed under Mika Chmielewski, Morocco, Rabat

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