Posted by Sarah Whipple
During my layover in Paris en route to a two-month Arabic immersion in Meknes, Morocco, I looked up a pamphlet of words and phrases in Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. I had never studied Darija before that moment, but I assumed that I could get by with my knowledge of Standard Arabic for the first couple of weeks in country. After reading the first page of Moroccan phrases, I quickly realized that I needed a new strategy.
Every city in Morocco speaks a different variation of the Darija dialect, but none of them bear any resemblance to Standard Arabic. Most are some configuration of Arabic, French, Spanish, and Amazigh, a combination that is often unrecognizable to Arabic speakers from other nations. In Arabic, a simple “How are you?” translates to “Keyf al hal?”. In Darija, it’s “La bas?” (to which the response is confusingly also “La bas”).
Although I came to Morocco to study Standard Arabic, I became determined to speak to my host community in their native tongue. Shortly after meeting my host family, I took my first shot at Darija by attempting to tell them I was tired and would like to rest before dinner. In my confusion over the Darija word for tired (which can be roughly transliterated to “aayana”), I ended up telling my family that I was Rihanna. After a moment of confusion, they burst out laughing, and asked “The singer?!”
Most of my first attempts at Darija bore similar results. The different vocabulary, pronunciations, and grammar rules racked my brain as I tried to simultaneously study the Standard and Moroccan dialects. After one particularly difficult week at school, I was taking a taxi home when the driver started to ask me simple questions in Darija: where I was from, why I came to Meknes, what other cities I had visited, and so on. Although my responses were far from perfect, he was so delighted by an American speaking in his native language that he gave me the taxi ride for free. If only a few weeks of conscious effort to study a language could make a difference in communicating with my host community, I knew it was worth continuing to try.
I am now halfway through my two months in Morocco, and while I can’t say I’m proficient, I’ve made remarkable progress. Day by day, I’ve been crossing new milestones: ordering in restaurants, giving directions to taxi drivers, or asking a security guard which cafes are open. This week, I even gave a five-minute presentation in Darija, a feat I would have thought impossible just a few weeks ago.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that the only way to learn to speak a language is by actually speaking it. This may sound obvious, but many times it’s easier to try to talk to people in English, or to not say anything at all. You won’t always know every word for every situation, but the only way to improve in a new language is by at least trying to speak it- even if you accidentally call yourself Rihanna.