“Are you fluent in Arabic?”
Trailing only behind “Morocco….? Wait, where?” and “But like, ISIS. Is it really safe there?,” the question of my fluency in Arabic pretty much trumps all else in the list of the FAQs Sarah (and, apparently, most PCVs) gets regarding Morocco. One might also go ahead and assume it is the most straightforward to answer (and maybe the only one that doesn’t elicit an accompanying eye roll). A simple “Kan tkllm l3arabiya b7al chi maghribiya” (I speak Arabic like a Moroccan) or “No, I speak to everyone in English, and THEY LOVE IT” would likely satisfy.
The reality, however, is that I have no idea.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question for a few reasons. First, the time on my hands these days could be measured in metric tons. I’m working, yes, but they’re half-days and, well…it’s Ramadan. One can only do so much when a country is shut down between 3:00am and 7:30pm. The second reason is that I’ve re-entered the linguistic airspace of Morocco and have had to dust-off my year-old Arabic skills. I’m meeting tons of new people in the process: students, their parents, co-workers, and family I didn’t know existed, among other random interactions I have to survive while buying Snickers bars at the corner store. I’m either constantly needing to speak in Arabic to these new people (aforementioned Snickers example), or I’m getting introduced as someone who speaks Arabic and shoved into the deep-end of a high-level conversation about the intricacies of the TOEFL exam. Or my favorite—I get spoken to in rapid-fire French and get to sit and nod politely until someone notices I have no idea what’s going on….or they don’t notice. That’s always fun. But I digress. My love (lololol) of the French language always causes me to digress (see second to last paragraph).
Why not ask a neutral third party to assess my language level? Well, that would make the information in this blog entry a little too legit for my liking, but also— I have gotten reviewed. Quite often, in fact. The problem is that those reviews are extremely mixed and approach contradictory. Within the same day, I’ve heard myself spoken of as “3arfat l3arabiya, tbarkallah” (She knows Arabic!) and “Kat fa7m….chwiya.” (She understands…a bit). My sister in law introduced me to her family and told them that if you speak slowly to me and use the simplest words, I will be able to understand (Honest. Harsh. I’ll take it.) Alternatively, one of my students boasted that my Arabic is “wa3ra,” or awesome (Generous. Affirming. I’ll take that too). I surprise people when I make witty remarks or plays on the language, and I confound people when I cannot think of the word for something basic. I’ve walked away from conversations beaming, congratulating myself on how awesome my accent sounded, and crawled away from others, trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered dignity as they exploded with every mis-conjugated vowel.
When I try to explain this consistent inconsistency to people, they either think I’m being modest or that I’m exaggerating my proficiency. How can someone who lived in Morocco for 2.5 years not be fluent? Alternatively, as far as Arabic is concerned, how can anyone ever become fluent?
I want to just go ahead and blame everything on the wild, untamed beast that is Moroccan Arabic, or Darija. Ladies and gents, this ain’t your mama’s Arabic. Actually…no. It’s EXACTLY that. It’s your mama’s Arabic, not your textbook’s Arabic, or, really, not anyone’s anything that’s written Arabic. I don’t have the benefit of being able to pour over a newspaper or book every morning to sharpen my Darija skills or teach myself new words—that’s all written in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the “official” Arabic that no one actually speaks anywhere but that is taught in school. Sure, MSA and Darija have significant overlaps. Some of the more official words, like “school” and “surgery” are the same in both dialects. Darija, however, is generally less fond of vowels than MSA. In Darija, I get to put sounds like “t” and “n” and “f” all together in one slur. For example, the MSA pronunciation of “Marrakech” is a rhythmic “Mahr-AH-kosh.” Meanwhile, in Darija, it’s a rapid-fire “Mrrrrrrrrraksh.” This vowel-lessness adds legitimacy to both those who find my Darija impressive (when I’m able to make those rigid consonants flow like buttahhh) and, simultaneously, incomprehensible (when I completely butcher the pronunciation.)
So, to learn a vowel-lite, non-written language, one obviously has to go out and talk to people. Except your mama’s Arabic is different than my mama’s Arabic. People from the north have different accents and different words than those in the south. For example, in Fes, I’m hearing a lot of “ntina” (her) instead of Marrakech’s “nti.” People ask “fu9ach” (when) rather than “imta.” Moroccans have no trouble entering into this linguistic dance with fluidity and grace, but for a gouriya who is eternally learning, it trips me up. And if your mama actually speaks a Berber dialect, well, we might as well speak to each other in German and Chinese.
The whole French thing drags down my fluency score as well. I took a half of a semester of French in college and stopped because, well, why would I ever need to learn French? Minus one foresight point for team Sarah. Not being a standardized language, there hasn’t been any need to update Darija’s lexicon to keep up with new technologies and the like. So, here come the French in all of their colonizing glory, swooping in and shaping people’s tongues. Searching for a word to describe the stock market? If the MSA term doesn’t come to mind, try it in French! Can’t think of the word for “application” in Arabic? Say it in English, but in a French accent! The “iPhone 6” is described as such in French. People gawk when I translate that into Arabic—it makes sense, but no one would actually ever say that. Government, high-level meetings, academia, and the upper class that run in these circles: French, French, and even more French. So, instead of being able to reach into my magical French bag of tricks and pull out the word for “screen resolution,” I attempted to explain it to my niece yesterday in Arabic by saying “the thing that means whether something is very clear or not.” You know what she told me? “Wow, you’ve really forgotten your Arabic.” Because I didn’t know a French word. Sacrebleu!
So, am I fluent in Arabic? It depends. Where is your mother from, and how much French does she know?