Schwiya b Schwiya: Early Reflections on Learning Moroccan Arabic

adde parvum parvo magnus acervus erit.


Little by little. Step by step. Schwiya b schwiya.

Darija, Moroccan Arabic, is at once an arduous challenge and exuberant fun. It is the greatest roadblock to everything we want to do in this country—but we’re also having the time of our lives learning more every day.

We owe pretty much all of it to our amazing language teacher back in community-based training, Khalid. (Khalid, if you’re reading this: you’re the best and we miss you a lot, bro!) We also owe debts to the many people in our communities who have patiently explained words to us and generously slowed down their sentences. And also a shout-out to our buddy Nawaf, who gave us a few Arabic lessons before we left the states. (The fact that we mostly memorized the words for “boobs” and “penguin” is in no way a reflection on Nawaf’s excellent teaching abilities.)

What looks like innocuous script/diacritic practice here may or may not be me being super immature.

What looks like innocuous script/diacritic practice here may or may not be me being super immature.

Learning a new language is no picnic. (Except for those couple of times that we were invited to literal picnics in Arabic, I guess?) There are certainly times when it feels so impossible. Ghayns stuck in our throats and uncooperative tongues refusing to trill R’s. Realizing later in the day which conjugations we completely botched. Repeating a word a dozen times to a listener who is still shaking their head and shrugging.

There are always those moments.

Fortunately, Moroccan Darija is such a wonderful language! There are loads of difficulties for the tongues and ears of English-speakers (here’s glaring at you, extra letters and collapsed vowels), but it’s really, really fun to learn. It is an amalgamation of Modern Standard Arabic (FusHa), French, Spanish, and the gorgeous Amazigh languages (Tarafit/Riffian, Central Atlas Tamazight, and Tashelhit/Shilha). Unfortunately, it is too different from other Arabics. (Unfortunate because one of our naive early hopes had been traveling to the Middle East with near-fluency. But alas, they won’t be able to understand us and we won’t be able to understand them.)

There are endless moments of hilarity and awkwardness in our lives because of language. Most people are kindly willing to stoop their words down to our baby-level. Alas, our mudir (our boss, the director of the Dar Chebab), is not one of those people. He is an erudite, eloquent person—and his natural speech is full of words even the average Darija speaker would consider elaborate. He’s the kind of person who says “archives” instead of “old papers.” (Dude, why couldn’t you have just said “old papers”??) Conversations with him are quite an ordeal. While most other people stick to pointing at objects/miming actions to teach us words (a much preferred method for us babies), our mudir is ruthlessly teaching us the words for metaphors (ex. “passing the torch”) and abstract concepts/philosophy. He’s a very kind man though. During one meeting, he told us, “We’ll help each other out. There are some things we’re good at and some things you’re good at. We’ll fill in the gaps together.” I’m guessing that when he said this, language was at the forefront of his mind.

More moments. The PCVs whom we are replacing studied Arabic FusHa before they arrived in country. So everyone asks us constantly why our Arabic isn’t as good as theirs. Ah, well.

More moments. Every once in a while, a waiter or shopkeeper will tell us our total bill and we will stare blankly for a moment, panicking because apparently our Arabic is so crappy that we can’t even understand numbers… before realizing that they’ve spoken to us in French. Ah, well.

In Morocco, when in linguistic doubt, sometimes pronouncing words in a French accent will help. It’s been working wonders for me. “What did you study in college?” someone will ask me. Blanking on the word for “literature” in Arabic, I just purse my lips franco-fully and say, “leeetchura-chuuur dyal longli!”

My favorite was the time we had to get our passports photocopied in a hanut. Robert asked the mul hanut, “Wesh kayn photocopy?” He stared at us uncomprehendingly. “No, sorry,” he said in Darija, “I don’t understand. What do you want?” We looked at each other for a moment, before I slowly let out, in an exaggerated French accent, “foo-tu-cou-peh?” His eyes immediately lit up in realization. “Ah, kayn!” he exclaims.

Our early predictions about language acquisition have been spot-on so far. Robert’s fear that I’d be better at remembering and regurgitating vocab because I’m bilingual seems to be about right. Not that it matters much. Because also, my belief that Robert’s natural kindness and people-personness would facilitate his conversations is definitely true. I’m cynical and taciturn in any language. It also helps that Robert is male and Arab-passing. A lot of men in our community tend to direct their speech towards him first, even when we are with Moroccan women.

One of the most frustrating aspects of learning a new language is the common reactions of Shock and Mock. Sometimes people are just astonished, and we don’t mind that at all. It’s perfectly understandable. But every once in a while, it’s a little tiring.

And when we are having one of those days when it seems like communication is impossible—our pronunciation nonviable, our memories decaying—it is good to remember that there are always ways to say what you need to say. Because here is a list of Complex Things You Can Discuss Even When Your Arabic Sucks:

  • Health care systems around the world
  • The intersection of morality and health in things such as smoking and drinking alcohol
  • Religious doctrine and religious extremism
  • Latinate → French etymology
  • The inevitability of death and grief
  • Systemic racism in the United States

And best of all:

  • Friendship and family and love!

Because even with our horrible language abilities, we’ve come to love so many people here. It’s unbearably cheesy, but hey—words are not a barrier to the connection of hearts. The people who have become our friends and family here know exactly what we are saying when we tell them how much we care about them, and even if we don’t know the exact translations all the time—we understand perfectly when they tell us how much they care about us. You know… there are just some things in the world that no language has the adequate words to express.IMG_8257

Yours Truly, 

Julie & Robert


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