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2/26/09 Languages of Morocco, aka I love my French teachers!

I keep promising myself I'm going to write a long thank-you note to my French teachers. Mme. Lyons, Mme. Charters, M. Gauche, I can never thank you enough.

Peace Corps can create language requirements for a country, if they want to. If you want to work anywhere in Central or South America, you need to have at least two years worth of Spanish under your belt. They still give you the same 8-12 weeks of language training that all PCTs get, but you're starting from a much better place. I've heard that French is required for some of the countries in the formerly-colonized countries of West Africa, but that might just be rumor. It's certainly *recommended*, but that doesn't actually mean all that much.

I think they should make French required for a posting in Morocco.

Every Moroccan kid learns at least some French in school. The amount of French acquired varies with the quality of the teacher and of the school, but they all know *some*. If you pursue education beyond high school, all of the courses are taught in French, so you're effectively required to be (or become) fluent.

In other words, if you speak French, you can talk to a large percentage of Moroccans. Everyone in a position of authority.

If you speak Darija, aka Moroccan Arabic, you can talk to everyone in Morocco except for a scant handful of people - mostly women and old men - in some rural villages. Those folks speak one of the three varieties of the Berber dialects: Tarifit, in the north; Tamazight, in the middle of the country; and Tasuseit, in the south.

Peace Corps elected to teach me Tamazight, since they placed me in the heart of the Berber lands in the middle of the country. With Berber, I can speak to all the natives of Berberville...but not all the transplants. And nearly everyone employed by the government - teachers, police, caid, judge - are transplants.

Fortunately, they're all educated, so I chat with them in French. My French is far from flawless, especially when I'm talking quickly, and my accent is more Parisian than Moroccan (though that's changing fast), but I can communicate whatever I need, and I can understand probably 98% of what is said to me.

For the PCVs who didn't have a Mme. Lyons, a Mme. Chartres, or a M. Gauche, things are a lot harder. Those who are taught Darija in stage, ie all of the Youth Development PCVs and about a quarter of the rest of us, have it a little easier.

But if your only languages are English and Tamazight, then you're going to have a hard time explaining yourself to a policeman, teacher, or local government official whose only languages are Darija and French.

My sitemate is in this position. Before I got to town, she'd usually end up grabbing a Tam speaker - and the nearest ones were usually a secretary or janitor - and having them translate for her. That sometimes worked. But bureaucratese is hard to translate. When the police were demanding her residency authorization forms, the best the translator came up with was "papers about work". She ended up calling a Peace Corps staffer and having them translate through the phone.

(OK, I fictionalized that particular story. She told me about it a long time ago and I've forgotten some of the details. But the gist is true.)

In non-emergency situations, most of us don't like to bother the Peace Corps staff. They're overworked as it is. So we muddle along as best we can.

I'd encourage anyone planning to spend any serious length of time in Morocco to study French. (Well, study Darija if you can, but it's a lot harder to find those courses!) Studying classical Arabic won't do you much's a lot like, say, a Chinese speaker studying Latin before visiting the US. The languages are related, most definitely, but centuries of evolution have created many immportant differences. More accurately, it would be like that Chinese speaker visiting the US 50 or 100 years ago, when Latin was taught in every prep school and Catholic kids grew up hearing weekly mass in it. Classical Arabic is used in mosques and Islamic Studies courses, but it's a formal, written language that has stayed carefully static for centuries. Modern Standard Arabic, spoken in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, etc, is quite close to Classical Arabic, but Morocco, so remote from the rest of the Arabic-speaking world, has let its language evolve further, and incorporate lots of words from French and Spanish (since France and Spain are much closer than, say, Saudi Arabia).

All of which is to say, Americans coming to Morocco should practice French.

In my work with the schools and the Department of Water and Forestry, I've found a total of 3 native Tam speakers. (Added complication: all three spoke regional variations different from mine - the risks of an unwritten language. It's a bit like an Aussie talking to someone from rural Scotland, or a midwestern American watching The Full Monty. If you listen hard, you'll do OK, but there are enough differences to make it challenging, especially if your ear isn't attuned to it.) Three. But everybody employed by the schools and DWF speaks college-level French. Lhumdullah.

I don't mind translating for my PCV friends. Honestly, I feel useless a lot of the time, so I'm grateful to have something to contribute to the work going on here. But it concerns me that it's so needed. Which brings me back to my point: Peace Corps should make French a requirement for service in Morocco. (Or else teach us all Darija, but that would preclude conversations with rural women, one of our target demographics.)

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