It’s amazing sometimes how much language can mean to people. It’s something you don’t generally think of in everyday life, at least from my experience in America. Other than some Anthropologists and Linguists gunning to protect endangered languages (learn more about it here), the most attention it gets in the States tends to be from people complaining about immigrants who don’t speak English. Not exactly the most positive image of American culture, especially considering our own general lack of linguistic education (which I’m sure is a big contributing factor to such anti-foreign sentiment, but I digress).
In Morocco, language is important and everyone knows it. People communicate not just with the words they speak, but also with the choice of which language they use. Language choice can convey information about education, social class, upbringing, expectations (foreigners are often addressed in French), and cultural attitudes of the speaker. The differences between French (the language of the colonizers and foreign elite), Darija (the everyday language of people on the street), and FosHa (the holy language of the Qoran and MENA’s lingua franca) are vast and carry very different connotations in their social use. These connotations can greatly affect one’s perception of the speaker, leading to some interesting exchanges that can either help or hinder one’s cause.
Between my limited Darija, stumbling French, and halting FosHa, I am generally able to comunicate and make myself understood after having been here for about 7 months now. I’ve found that the more Darija I use, the more surprised and happy people are. They don’t expect foreigners to know the local dialect. Even people from other Arab countries can’t understand much Darija, which is what makes FosHa so helpful. Moroccans are often surprised when I speak FosHa too (as most European or Western tourists speak only French, English, and/or the language of their home country), but only the more educated, more religious, or those more enamored with Egyptian soap operas speak it themselves. Whenever I speak Arabic (including FosHa, but especially when I try for some Darija), people instantly become more friendly, more open, and more excited to know me. I’ve gained a lot more insight on Moroccan life and culture by trying to learn the language, and people repay my interest in small ways all the time.
I’ve already mentioned my encounter with the cotton candy man in Meknes, but that’s just one example. Just this morning I went to buy water from a small shop near the train station (to avoid paying the more expensive price on the train) and greeted the man there with a short conversation in Darija. He told me the price and then, after a few jokes testing my Arabic while I dug around in my wallet, refused to let me pay full price because he knew I was a student studying the language locally. I’ve only been to that shop once before (and not in a month or so) but he remembered me and appreciated my efforts to learn about Morocco. I know that long after the water is gone and the money forgotten, his smile will continue to warm my heart, serving as a reminder of the true value of cultural exchange and the ability of language (whether gestured, fluent, stumbling, or otherwise) to connect people all over the world.