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Speaking the Language

Morocco - Speaking the Language


Part I: Some General Language Advice for New Immigrants to Morocco

The best advice I can offer to anyone moving to Morocco (or ANY new country), and wanting to learn the language, is to have NEITHER a TV, nor an internet connection at HOME for the first year, or more. This will force you into interacting with people in the native languages of the country.

In Morocco, once you become fluent enough to have basic conversations with people on a variety of subjects, THEN get a TV, but DO NOT get a satellite dish. Instead, watch French TV, and preferably with friends, who can translate an unfamiliar word from time-to-time. Almost all the ex-pats I have known watch TV only in their native language 90+ percent of the time. Those who got satellite dishes immediately upon moving to Morocco have NEVER, EVER become fluent in the native languages. Those who have were forced to rely on nearly all interactions in the native languages.

If you feel you MUST have news in your own language, from the very beginning, I suggest relying on the weekly American news magazines, Time and Newsweek, and buying an occasional copy of USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, or one of the tabloid newspapers from England which are available in Morocco at foreign news stands. Also, it is a very good idea (both for pleasure and safety reasons) to bring a shortwave radio (purchased abroad before coming, with a long copper antenna wire for superior reception anywhere).

Most of the women who have become fluent in Moroccan Diriga Arabic learn it through forced interactions with maids who speak no French. Other men and women have learned it through friendships or long interactions with Moroccans, acquiring it piecemeal (see discussion below).


Part II: English in Morocco

Most Moroccans speak little, or no, English. However, this is beginning to change. Morocco is realizing the worldwide importance of English. Since 2003, private schools (but not public schools) have introduced English-language study in elementary schools, as a required course, starting at about age 10. Formerly, English was not available as an elective until high school. Some new American schools have opened in Marrakesh and Agadir these past few years, boosting the number of English speakers in the south.

Tourists will often hear English in the souk (traditional Moroccan shopping area); however, most of the English vocabulary is limited to tourist topics (as opposed to societal, or newsworthy topics).

English is more widely spoken than it used to be. Three-star hotels and up will usually have someone at the front desk who is somewhat proficient in English. Professional/medical people can usually be found in the city, who do have sufficient English, although it does take some time to locate them. Check with other ex-pats in your location.


Part III: Morocco's Official Languages

Morocco has two official languages, which are not always used interchangeably in the public sector. Officially, the language of Morocco is Arabic (sometimes known elsewhere in the Arab world as Modern Standard Arabic).

If you are completing any legal documents (such as a house contract, or rental contract), they will need to be in Arabic, as opposed to French. The reason for this is that all of the Moroccan court system is conducted only in Arabic.

The second official language is French. Depending upon the orientation of a company, business is often conducted in either French, Arabic (most often Diriga for speaking, and Classical for written work-see discussion below), or both.


French

In my experience, because French is generally much easier for most foreigners to manage to learn to communicate in than Classical Arabic, I recommend spending as much time as possible on learning a bit of French before arriving in Morocco. Furthermore, in Morocco, most of the business or street signs that foreigners need to read are written in French (as opposed to being exclusively in Arabic, as in other Arabic countries). Alternatively, there will be a sign posted for illiterate people that is readily understandable. For example, a dentist will hang up a sign which is a color picture-drawing of dentures!

If you arrive not knowing any French at all, classes are offered at the French Cultural Centers, and French Institutes, located in all major cities around Morocco. It is easy to find French classes anywhere, as French is a language all Moroccans need in daily business. However, be aware that what is considered a beginning level in Morocco is not at all what a foreigner would consider a beginning level. If at all possible, take a beginning French course in your own home country before arrival.


Classical Arabic

If you are interested in learning Classical Arabic, I recommend trying to find a class and studying it a bit in your home country before arrival. That is because the classes here progress at such a fast pace that it is impossible to keep up, unless you are one of those people who really has a special "gift" for languages. The hardest part of learning ANY language is right at the beginning. It takes a lot of time to learn the Arabic alphabet, and to learn to write the alphabet well, in addition to pronouncing the letters. You will certainly get a much better explanation of pronunciation of the Arabic letters in your own home country before arriving. If you are at least able to master the letters (reading and writing), and their pronunciation before arriving, you will really have a leg up to be successful with your studies.

It is not difficult to find classes anywhere in Classical Arabic.

In Fes, there is an Arabic Language Institute:

Director: Linda Bouchard Hart Address: 2 rue ahmed el hiba, Fes Ville Nouvelle, 30000; Morocco


Part IV: Morocco's Unofficial Languages

Local Moroccan Dialect-A Dilemma for the Foreigner

Classical Arabic (also know elsewhere as Modern Standard Arabic) is the language used throughout the Arab world for official business, literature, documents, and on television programs and news broadcasts. Unofficially, everyone speaks the "Moroccan Diriga," meaning the local Arabic dialect. This dialect is sufficiently different from the Classical Arabic learned in school, that if someone (such as a typical maid) has never been to school they will not even be able to understand the Arabic on TV (Classical Arabic).

Here is an example of how different Classical Arabic is from Moroccan Diriga. Before moving to Morocco, I spent some time studying Classical Arabic. After arriving, I used the word "please," which in Classical Arabic is "min fadlik," while speaking with my maid. After several MONTHS, I discovered that my maid didn't have a CLUE as to what I was saying! The word for "please" in the local Moroccan Diriga dialect is "aafak."

So, this creates a dilemma for foreigners moving to Morocco, regarding which they should spend time and effort studying. Should they study the Classical Arabic, which is everywhere on TV shows and broadcasts (but which is useless in talking to maids, guardians, taxi drivers, and the man at the corner store)? Or, should they learn the Diriga (local Moroccan dialect), which is spoken by everyone, rich and poor alike (but not used on TV, radio, movies, newspapers, or magazines)?

As an immigrant, you need to learn to communicate with the greatest number of people QUICKLY. If you learn a smattering of French, you will be able to communicate with educated people who don't speak English, as well as many store owners (but not the little corner stores), and many taxi drivers-these people will have a smattering of French just about covering the types of business transactions they are involved in.

You will need to learn Moroccan Diriga to communicate with the REST of the people you meet. These are uneducated people who often have never been to school, or who just have very rudimentary schooling-not enough to know either French OR Classical Arabic. The only language they will know (of the three) is the Moroccan Diriga. The only exception is in remote, or mountain areas, particularly in the far south, or southeast. These people may know only Berber (see below).

Furthermore, the Diriga of each region is different in pronunciation, and sometimes in words. For example, Moroccan children who move from Casablanca, or Tangier, to Marrakesh, sometimes have trouble understanding the new words and accents. But for most people, learning the Diriga of your region will take you pretty well throughout Morocco, well enough to communicate.

Diriga is also important if you want to travel alone around Morocco, especially in the more remote areas, outside of cities. Hotel people will speak at least some minimal French (if there is a hotel), but few other people may--except for a "prices and bargaining" type of vocabulary. Married men (if their wives will be dealing with maids, shopping, and errands) may have less immediate need of Diriga than married women or single people.

For anyone who wishes to study Classical Arabic, it is easy to find teachers and classes everywhere. This is the official language of Morocco.

For anyone who wishes to study Moroccan Diriga, it can be quite difficult. It is both difficult to learn, and difficult to find in a classroom setting (although occasional classes DO exist). While foreigners will understand your need for the language, many Moroccans will not. They will want you to learn "real" (Classical) Arabic. Moroccan Diriga is somewhat looked down on, as the "language of the uneducated," even though most Moroccans, educated and uneducated alike, speak it all day long. (Upper class Moroccans usually speak French to each other, as it shows they are of a "certain class." But they switch into Diriga easily whenever the situation calls for it.)

Furthermore, Diriga is considered a "dialect," and is not a written language (although it can be written phonetically, for study by foreigners). Most Moroccans who teach, or tutor, will not view it as a "real," or "good," language (Moroccans often comment to foreigners that their language is a "very bad" language. After many years of hearing this comment, I believe that this it has a certain "snob appeal," intended to show the listener that the person who says it is educated, and also speaks other, "better" languages.) Moroccans prefer not want to teach you the Diriga dialect in a classroom setting, and will have trouble understanding why you may prefer to learn that "low" form.

Moroccan friends, on the other hand, will be delighted to teach you. Maids will be delighted to instruct you, beginning with names of vegetables in the kitchen. If you are lucky enough to meet a present, or former, Peace Corps worker, there is an excellent manual, prepared by the Peace Corps, on Moroccan Diriga.

Most foreigners who arrive speaking neither French, nor Arabic, usually tend to concentrate their language efforts mostly on one language or the other It is hard for most people to have the time and personal drive to become fluent in two new languages, although that is ideal.


Berber

Berber is not recognized as an official language in Morocco.

Four separate Berber languages exist, three of which are spoken in Morocco. Yet, all are collectively referred to as "Berber." If someone says they speak Berber, we cannot know which of the Berber languages he speaks, without more precision.

The Berbers are considered to be the oldest native inhabitants of Morocco. The Berbers are a people originally of Caucasian origin. While the Berbers have an uncertain and disputed origin, scientists now seem to think the original Berbers may have moved south through Spain--not being of Spanish origin, but having moved through that area, during Neolithic times--perhaps across a land bridge in the past, near Gibraltar. Over the centuries, Berbers have mixed with many other ethnic groups, especially from further south. Now they are often identified on a linguistic (rather than a racial) basis.

Three different Berber languages are spoken in Morocco. Riffian is used in the north, the region of the Rif Mountains. Tamazight is used in the High and Middle Atlas Mountains. Chleuh is used in the southeastern regions of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, and in the desert oasis regions.

Foreigners often ask how you can tell who is Arab, and who is Berber. In actuality, the distinction is not always clear, particularly in the northern regions of Morocco. Some people (particularly around the large northern cities) consider Berber identity negatively because many Berbers are less educated, and live in underdeveloped regions. Many others, particularly in Marrakesh and southern regions, are quite proud of their Berber heritage.

In Marrakesh, and further south, the distinction becomes much clearer. While it may not be clear to a foreigner, a Moroccan can look at another Moroccan, and immediately know that he is Berber (or of Berber heritage). For example, when my Berber husband goes south to Tiznit, where most people are Berber, they speak in the street to my husband in Berber--just because they know by his facial features that he is Berber (his mother being one kind of Berber, and his father another). Then my husband has to explain to them that he doesn't speak Berber (the language now being lost in his family).

Also, many Berbers also tend to congregate in certain occupations. In the cities, they are often the shopkeepers of corner stores. In the countryside, they are often the farmers. According to the BBC, over 60% of Moroccans claim to be Berbers, or of Berber heritage. In rural mountain regions, nearly all of the inhabitants will be Berber, and speak the language.

Since 2003, there is a new pilot program in a few schools around the country, in which Berber language study is being reintroduced. There is a movement in Berber areas, and among Berber Moroccans in Europe, to not let the Berber language and heritage die out.

Generally the only foreigners learning Berber are learning it for various personal reasons, or for use in doing some kind of work in mountains, or remote areas. Berber is not considered and official language, and is only of personal use to foreigners.

So, where can one learn Berber? If you are lucky enough to meet a present, or former, Peace Corps worker, they may be able to help you out. You may be able to find individual Berber tutors in your own city, without too much trouble. Also, there are some language materials on-line which can be ordered, and some tutors advertising on-line, such as (but these sites are not specifically recommended or approved):

http://www.maps2anywhere.com/Languages/Berber_language_course.htm

http://www.mylanguageexchange.com/Learn/Berber.asp

and tutors on-line:

http://www.language-school-teachers.com/Default.asp?selX6=9


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