"French and Darija: Or, Comparing Apples to Oranges" by Liora Silkes
Earlier today I was sitting in the office of the organization where I volunteer in Rabat, reading a pamphlet about their work. One of the other volunteers remarked that it was cold in the room, and I responded, pointing out that the door was open and getting out of my seat to shut it. A few minutes later, I laughed, realizing that a moment that would be so unusual anywhere else in the world was a simple, ordinary occurrence for me in Morocco.
It wasn’t the cold room, or the friendly coworkers. Not the pile of bread and olives sitting on the table, nor the slow wifi connection. No, the most Moroccan and ordinary aspect of that moment was the number of languages used. I had been reading an article originally written in Modern Standard Arabic (translated with the help of Google to English), the other volunteer asked her question in Darija, and I responded in French.
With a few years of experience with French and a few weeks of Darija, the assortment of languages I use to communicate throughout the day fits in with the mix that most others use. My sentences are skewed toward French, while most Moroccans lean toward Darija, but I’m working to balance those out. Knowing English and French means I can easily get by and communicate in Rabat, but all the Moroccans I have met really encourage me to learn Arabic. From greeting shopkeepers in the medina with Salaam, labas? (Hello, how are you?) to complimenting my host mom’s cooking with Kolshi zween ou bnin! (Everything is beautiful and delicious!), using even just shwiya (a little) bit of Arabic is a good way to show that I care about this country and its people.
Some of the Darija I have learned so far has been in my Arabic class. This is an excellent space for learning: an hour dedicated to understanding the language, a place where I can ask questions (in English!) and make sure my grammar is perfect. Most of the vocabulary I have learned, however, comes from my host family. My host mom does not speak English or French, so every conversation can be a bit challenging, but very rewarding.
For example, a few weeks ago, my host mom pointed to an orange and said a word I didn’t recognize. We had already gone through the names of fruits in Darija, so I assumed she was telling me something new — perhaps describing its color or location. The word she said sounded a bit like “Portugal” so I guessed she was saying that the fruit came from that country. It just so happened that I had flown through Lisbon on my way to Morocco, so I excitedly started to share this with her.
Of course, I don’t know the Arabic words for airplane or layover — or even how to set up a story in past tense — so I used some French and a lot of miming. She didn’t understand. After a few minutes of confused looks, we called our host cousin (who speaks Arabic, French, and English) into the room to bridge the language gap. I told her about visiting Portugal and my host mom pointed to the orange, and our host cousin burst out laughing. The orange, in fact, did not come from Portugal. And even though we had already learned fruit names in Darija, we had not yet named the fruits in Modern Standard Arabic, in which the word for orange is bortuqal. After clearing up the confusion, my host cousin pointed to the bananas sitting next to the bortuqal and said, “Yes, and these are called France!”
As a language learner, it is easy for me to mix up words, accidentally sliding between French, Darija, Modern Standard Arabic, and English. But what’s accidental confusion to me is natural to many Moroccans: an easy bounce from one language to the next, using whichever words happen to come to mind.