2019 Spring Amideast External Programs Gwen Jensen Morocco

The World Is Your Classroom…

Assalamu alaikum,” I say, opening the blue taxi door. The driver is initially taken aback, as most Moroccans are when the blonde, blue-eyed American girl begins speaking in the Moroccan dialect, djarijah. He smirks amusedly as we begin haggling over the cost of the ride. Once a price has been established, I get in the car and spend the ride explaining that I am spending a semester in Morocco, to learn Arabic. For the duration of the ride, I feel on top of the world: conversing without a second thought, despite (probably) grossly mispronouncing the gravelly letters. I am grateful for my 10-minute language lesson: a quick moment of practice with my behind-the-wheel professor.

I guess it’s a special type of American-bred overconfidence that led me to spend four months in a country where I spoke neither French or the local dialect. But with the world as my classroom filled with tutors and teachers, I have become a fast learner. Textbooks swapped for street signs, and worksheets swapped for restaurant bills, and daily oral exams. This is owed to the kindness and understanding of the Moroccan people, who don’t care how long it takes me to stutter out a sentence; they are always overjoyed that I am at least trying.

Such is the case when I go to the neighborhood cafe to work on my Arabic homework, and my waiter, who speaks no English, stops to go over the exercises with me. Or when I go to the local corner store and the shopkeeper goes around excitedly pointing out and naming the nuts and fruits I am picking out for travel snacks. What would normally be a five minute stop on my way home turns into a thirty minute language lesson. These spontaneous lessons have become fairly common for me in my time abroad: everyone is eager to share the language with me and help me learn. And it is these lessons that have left me with a far greater vocabulary than I could have attained in the classroom alone.

This experience starkly contrasts the American impatience towards foreign language. In Morocco, the initial shock that an American would be learning Arabic and the eagerness to help me expand my vocabulary is worlds away from the American expectation that everyone must speak not only English, but flawless English.

When I first started learning Arabic, I could barely pronounce the alphabet: it took me 5 minutes to stumble over the letters just to finally spit out a butchered pronunciation of a single word. Without fail, speaking from memory led to my frustrated tears.

But less than a year later, I find myself eager and excited to use my Arabic, stumbling and spilling and overflowing with new words, with my host family and teachers and children on the tram as eager to help as I am to practice. I now know the satisfaction which far overshadows an “A” on an exam: the “ah ha” spark when the words on street signs come to life, piecing together sentences that connect my home and school lives in Morocco.

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