Sunday, August 1, 2010

On Language

Over the past few weeks, one of the most striking aspects of Moroccan culture has been the extent to which people here are multilingual. Arabic, French, Berber dialects, Spanish, and more echoed around us. I knew that there was a long history of interaction with France (and also Spain), but I did not expect to find French still so widely used in Morocco. It was particularly surprising to learn that it is generally the language of higher education.

One day in Fes, we were invited to a middle school in the medina. Our hosts welcomed us with an amazing reception featuring everything from tea and cookies to a camera crew. A group of students and teachers had come to the school during their vacation to meet us and to show us a Moroccan classroom in action.

We all crowded into a math classroom and watched as a lively teacher and his students used a digital projector to work through their material in a combination of Arabic and French. They all flipped fluidly between the two languages, seemingly equally at ease in both. By the time the students reached the university level, most of their classes would be entirely in French (particularly in the sciences).

Afterward, I found myself reflecting on my own language use – both professionally and personally.

At my school, foreign language classes are important but minimally integrated with most of the other subjects. How could I incorporate this aspect of my students’ culture more effectively into my curriculum? Since I don’t speak the language they study, I became determined to consult with my colleagues upon my return to the US. Could I start by adding target-language captions to my SMARTboard presentations? Would that really be a meaningful place to begin? How could truly integrate with the language department?

In terms of personal reflections, it was clear that my own “pretty good for an American from a monolingual household” French was nothing compared to the native-level speech I encountered here. Translating for my colleagues was fun, and I felt inspired to work harder and to continue improving my language skills. I also learned to trust my comprehension more. Each time I thought I couldn’t possibly have understood correctly since a description seemed not to make sense, it turned out I had, in fact, been right. “They’ll carry the bride in on a plate,” for example, was a pretty accurate description of one part of the wedding reception we attended.

As our trip progressed, it was equally clear that speaking French was a huge barrier to my learning Arabic. After all, why muddle through a conversation with my 10 words of Arabic when I could much more easily just flip into a language in which I can communicate clearly? I would definitely need to 1) dramatically increase my vocabulary so that I moved beyond the “playing charades” level of communication, and 2) put myself in a situation where French wasn’t an option. We’ll see how much I am able to continue studying the language when I return home, but I may need to visit a non-francophone Arabic-speaking country in the future.

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