I’ve mentioned this before, but I pretty much decided to study Arabic because, like any nerd, I love a good academic challenge. And boy, did I get one. I’m sure everyone knows this already, but Arabic is hard. Like, really hard.
At Temple, the Arabic program centers around “FusHa” or “Modern Standard Arabic” (MSA for short). MSA is the best way to learn Arabic because it’s relatively universal (it’s the style used in the Quran and in Arab media like newspapers and broadcasts) but it’s also the hardest version to learn. Although MSA is understood by most Arabic speakers, it sounds a little strange when spoken. My IES professor put it like this: Speaking MSA instead of a dialect is a little like if someone walked up to a modern American speaking like Shakespeare. It’s very formal and rarely spoken in lieu of dialects.
So here I am, in an Arabic-speaking country, knowing MSA and not the Moroccan dialect. I can have conversations with Moroccans, but they are definitely a little strange because I’m not speaking Darija (the Moroccan dialect) yet. I’m taking a class on the dialect while I’m here, but as of right now I can only string together a couple of words and phrases in Darija, which makes day-to-day interactions a little difficult. I’m learning more everyday, though.
Arabic is pretty tough. I encounter a lot of barriers throughout my day, but I can overcome most of them with my knowledge of MSA (side note: if there was a country that only spoke MSA, I think I’d be more than fine right now, but unfortunately this is not the case). Moroccans learn Darija first, then study MSA in school, and then learn French – most of them don’t get around to learning English. Sometimes my struggles are when the 4-year old I live with is rattling off sentence after sentence at the speed of light, and he just ends up yelling “La! La! La!” (“No! No! No!”) at me. Other times, it’s when I realize my vocabulary just isn’t extensive enough to express a particular thought, which can be frustrating because I have such good ones! (:
However, for every difficulty I encounter, there’s some sort of equal reward. They’re often small, but they encourage me to persist in the language. I like playing with the babies in my house because I can speak to them in very simple sentences and not worry about them judging me. Similarly, my host parents speak to the four year old with a lot of commonly-used commands and phrases (“Give me that,” “Bring me…,” “Come here,” etc) that I can now pick up on and use for myself. Today I had maybe the most successful lingual accomplishment yet – I bought water from a vendor and spoke only Darija! It sounds so small, but being able to converse with him and make a little small talk while he counted change really made me feel like I belong here and that all my hard work with Arabic is starting to pay off.
As my mind has been wrapping around Arabic for the past week or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about second languages. This morning, it occurred to me that I will be incredibly relieved to go back home and not worry about how to communicate during my next interaction, or even to just understand every sign I see. At the same exact time, it occurred to me that many people (namely immigrants and refugees) are unable to experience such relief because they are unable to return to their home country. At home, I’m privileged in many ways, but having English as my first language is not a privilege I often thought about, and my study abroad experience is deeply impacting my views on language in the U.S. In Morocco, I can’t describe how relieving it is to see English, whether written on a sign, menu, advertisement, or other (although I don’t see it often). I don’t see why we shouldn’t do the same for lingual minorities in the U.S. It wouldn’t kill us to add Spanish to maps or signs, and it would certainly make life easier for those who are ESL (English Second Language) speakers. When I return to Temple in the fall, I’ll be interning for Nationalities Service Center’s English as a Second Language Team, so hopefully I can make a real impact on this issue by helping immigrants and refugees learn English. I’m glad that, for now, I’m getting a taste of what their language experience will be like.
This weekend, my program is taking us on a field trip to the cities of Fez and Meknes, so hopefully I’ll return with some good stories from my visit! Maa Salaama! (Goodbye!)