A Story in Language Learning + Humility
“It can be safe to say that when we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth possessing, for the rest of time.”
Growing up in Minnesota, language was something I generally took for granted. I never had any problems communicating what was needed, asking for help or using my words to connect with others. I was lucky enough to get some immersive exposure to french from a young age through the amazing Concordia Language Village Summer Camp, but only 2 weeks out of an entire year is not quite enough to prepare anyone for diving into life in a completely different country.
For my first two months in Morocco, I was struck dumb. The french I had learned at Lac du Bois and for a measly couple years in high school, taught by a crazy cat lady who I’m pretty sure had never even stepped foot in France, suddenly revealed itself to be completely inadequate. On top of that, there was this whole other foreign language, darija, ringing in my ears around me, one in which I could never tell whether people were extremely excited or extremely angry. Everything sounded throaty and jagged to my sheltered ears. It was not until about a year later that I discovered the intricate beauty in this Arabic dialect.
James Baldwin wrote, “it is language which controls an experience,” which explains why my first experience of life in Tangier was a confused mess. I was helplessly trying to keep up with team meetings at my internship, crying in the bathroom afterwards, going to parties with other foreigners and moroccans, but finding that even a glass of french wine will not make you fluent in the language. I was lost.
I started pushing myself with french as soon as I heard that I was going to be teaching youth dance classes, knowing that children would have no qualms in making fun of my language mistakes. Looking back now, that learning process is a bit of a blur. Words and phrases from french camp began to gradually surface and I constantly felt like I was speaking before even realizing what came out of my mouth. Finally after putting in some determined effort for several months, french began flowing from me more naturally. I still struggle with writing eloquent emails and phone conversations, but in general I feel confident using the word fluent.
Darija, on the other hand, is quite a different story. I stood at the cusp of this language with absolutely no clue of what was to be found. I had no base, no knowledge of sounds, patterns or accents. The one thing I had going for me was a strong motivation: I knew for a fact that my students and dancers were saying things about the choreography and quite possibly about me in front of my face in Arabic and I was determined not to look clueless.
Here is what I learned immediately once I had a friend start tutoring me in the basics- any ounce of pride or embarrassment has to be completely ignored and shut away in order to learn anything. Sitting in my kitchen, repeating back and forth garbled Gh’as and Kha’s, breathy Hhha’s and the dreaded Qa, there was no room for being shy in that process. I was forced to accept the fact that I was going to sound ridiculous until the practice payed off.
I basically had to revert back to my child self, forming words for the first time. I had to let go of that adult pride and embrace everything unknown. With language, you have to be prepared for trial and error and learn to laugh at yourself louder than anyone else. You will probably make a spectacle of yourself and you might say something completely wrong, explaining frantically “no, I was not trying to call you a dick, I just wanted to say that I like raisins!” (true story).
However cringeworthy these experiences were at the time, I can tell you with absolute certainty that they were all worth it. The stunned delight spread across someone’s face when I am able to communicate with them in their native speech is something that continues to make me smile daily. I know that with my blonde hair and skin that burns after 10 minutes in the sun, I am never going to truly fit in Morocco, but I have found that language is a key means to general acceptance.
I am still tentative in saying that I am fluent in darija. Even though I have no problem explaining what I need in a given situation, I continue to have frequent taxi rides where the driver goes on a rant about god-knows-what and I end up just sitting there awkwardly, murmuring assents or vague sympathetic words, hoping I can leap out before he asks me any direct questions. The journey of humility versus pride is far from over, but just realizing that the learning curve can be steadily climbed and that peaks are reachable is a lesson for which I feel eternally grateful.