How I Learned Moroccan Arabic + 5 Ways to Self-Study Any Language
“Language is self-awareness. Understanding oneself as one is understood by another. One understands oneself: that is the beginning of language.”
I have written briefly in the past about my language-learning adventure, first with French and then with Darija. However, I still have so many people constantly asking me, “How did you do it?” How have I gotten to the point where when I speak Moroccan Arabic people frequently get confused and ask me if maybe someone in my family is from Morocco?
The truth is that it boils down to one small seed of motivation. The fierce determination to feel like I belong.
No one told me that I had to learn Arabic. Marouan speaks perfect English and I could easily get by at work with only French. However, I knew that if I never learned the native language here, there would always be a part of me on the outskirts of the culture and the community. While some people may not mind it, I personally have never enjoyed the feeling of being the outsider. I like to blend in seamlessly, of course still being true to myself, but also feeling included. I found that the more I speak and understand Darija, the more I have been accepted and welcomed as a member of the Tangier community and not just treated as a foreigner passing through.
Now, not everyone’s intention is the same for learning a language, but I do think that is the first key in diving in- you have to find and identify a strong motivation to keep yourself going. Because languages can be frustrating, but ultimately so rewarding.
So on a practical level, how did I do it?
First things first, I found sources of inspiration and sought advice from those with much more experience than myself. While the amazing and slightly intimidating language abilities of Moroccans in general was a huge motivating factor for me, there are two people who stand out and helped to give me that beginning push.
One of these people is my husband. When Marouan and I first met, I was in awe of how many languages he speaks. Fluent in English, French, Spanish, and basically every Arabic dialect there is, plus he has a knack for picking up basic phrases and words in every country he visits. He can introduce himself in Swedish, say a smattering of random things in Dutch, and decided to take on the Russian alphabet on a whim last year. His endless curiosity for language has absolutely deepened my own, if not just for the base feeling that I should probably “catch up” with him so that we can have a more multi-lingual life.
The second person is a good friend who passed through Tangier for just 8 months a while back and basically mastered Darija in that time frame. When I first met Nico, one half of the couple behind the travel blog Journal of Nomads, he already spoke 8 languages and counting, picking them up in every single country he visited. It helped that he grew up bi-lingual in Quebec, but his ear and his dedication to learning vocabulary, accents and even new alphabets was incredibly inspiring for me during the beginning of my Darija-learning journey. He generously imparted his wisdom on me, along with a USB full of found resources and his own tips for learning the basics of any language incredibly quickly.
After asking for that help and tapping into others’ experiences and knowledge, the daily self-study began. It wasn’t exactly methodic or planned, I just kept myself always learning, staying open and aware every day. When looking back and continuing on (because I still have a lot to learn), these are the main ways that I adopted a new language into my life:
5 Ways to Self-Study a Language
Write everything down. Either carry a small notebook with you or make a list in your phone (like me) and make notes of things as they come to you. Writing things down, even if you don’t refer back to them immediately, often helps the mind remember things. If I hear a word over and over, I type it into my phone and later ask someone what it means. Likewise, if I find myself constantly needing to say something and not having the word for it, I write that down in English and ask someone how to say it in Arabic later.
Make people talk to you in the language, if you have the chance. When you meet someone who speaks whatever it is you are trying to learn, politely ask them not to switch into your native tongue. Let the people around you know that you are in the midst of this learning process and ask for their help in pushing you to grow. I constantly insist that shop owners, taxi drivers, and even colleagues keep speaking to me in Darija instead of switching to French or English, which may be more comfortable, but doesn’t help me to advance.
Listen to music in that language, google the lyrics and learn their meaning. That way, you will be able to sing along with popular songs and look cool in front of your friends, plus learn new and often pretty random vocabulary. I have to thank Saad Lamjarred for being one of my faithful Moroccan language teachers.
Similarly, watch local TV shows or movies. Even if you are using subtitles, listening and connecting words helps immensely, plus you can also hear a variety of accents and common slang that you may not be exposed to in a classroom setting. (Side-note: If you are learning Spanish, go watch Gran Hotel immediately. It's like Downton Abbey in Spain.)
Finally, alway always always be humble. Be willing to make mistakes. Know that you are probably going to speak like a child for the first several attempts, say some silly sounding things, and dive in anyway.
I know from experience that none of this is easy, especially if you are not in an immersive environment. When you don’t hear new words and phrases daily, it can be hard to find the willpower to truly master a language. Really, I am no expert. I am still struggling through trying to learn Spanish, following my own advice on and off and trying to stay motivated to be able to at least get enough vocabulary to teach a basic yoga class, since many of my current yoga students are Spanish women. In general, if you are trying to learn a language outside of its native country, seek out people in your own community who may speak it or find others who are interested in practicing. Forming a community around a shared learning experience can help keep us accountable.
Overall, just keep coming back to why you are doing it, why it is important to you. For me, language learning has become a huge part of my life. I love how it opens us up in new ways and exposes hidden parts of ourselves. I believe that learning a language builds empathy. It forms connections. It requires generosity, self-reflection and patience. It is an endlessly rewarding passion to pursue and I am grateful for the people and this place that have sparked the curiosity in me.