Wait . . . what?
Let me put it this way: The languages spoken in Morocco are Arabic and French with some Berber Amazigh scattered here and there. That said, when it came to Arabic and Amazingh I was beyond clueless. Then when it came to French, the only words I knew were fromage, merci, boulangerie, numbers 1-6, and the phrase parlez-vous francais. As you can imagine, these language skills—or lack thereof—got me nowhere.
Since there aren't any photos for this post, here is a table of contents. I promise I won't be insulted if you Ctrl+F:
- What to do when in a country where you can't read, speak, or write anything?
- My impromptu French phrases
- I still spoke English, though
- The same words in different languages
- What NOT to do when dealing with the language barrier
- Pensé hablaron Español. Oops.
- My favorite language moment
- Don't worry too much about it
So, what to do when in a country where you can't read, speak, or write anything?
Well, I Googled things and pointed a lot.
When I managed to claw my way onto some WiFi, I took to Google Translate and copied down some words and phrases I thought could come in handy. I chose French rather than Arabic because it was more familiar to me and I thought I’d be halfway decent at it, especially because I understood Spanish. Well, that thought was embarrassingly wrong, but my oral butchering of a 1300 year old language was still discernible enough to get me what I needed.
Some of my impromptu French phrases included:
"Je suis un . . ." = I am a . . .
"artiste; estudiant" = artist; student
"Quel est le prix" = What's the price
"Aliments; eau" = Food; water
"Salle de repos" = Restroom
"Aidez moi" = Help me
"Bienvenus" = You're welcome
"puls je vous photo" = May I photograph you
"Joli garcon/fille/enfant" = Cute boy/girl/child
"Belle femme" = Beautiful woman
"Bel homme" = Handsome man
"jolis vêtements" = Pretty clothes
(That second set came in handy when explaining to strangers why the heck I was staring at them).
I have absolutely no idea how accurate those words and phrases were, but I do know they were a baby step in the right direction.
I also copied down how to say the other numbers beyond 6 so that when someone told me how much something cost, I would know whether they said "10" or "100" . . . a big difference when it came to how much money I was going to pull out of my pocket.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of hand gestures and body language. Pointing at an overpriced knick-knack universally means “I’m interested in that” and everyone will know the difference between a thumbs-up and the middle finger.
I still spoke English, though.
I was able to speak English 80% of the time and have locals understand me. Keep in mind, though, that I spent most of my time in major cities with bilingual universities, hotels, museums, and cultural centers, which meant it was relatively easy to find someone who spoke English. In Fes I actually ran into some children who spoke English rather well, explaining that they had learned it simply from watching television.
Encountering the same words in different languages
Something that really threw me off was how to spell some of the things I was saying. Was that city with the wild medina spelled "Fes", "Fez", or "Fés"? Is the "Jardin Majorelle" (or "Majorelle Garden") in "Marrakesh" or "Marrakech"?
The many different spellings of words to be found throughout the country can be attributed to the the mix of French and Arabic with some English tossed in here and there. For example, Fes—with an S—is the Arabic spelling of the city written in Latin characters, while Fez—with a Z—seems to be a slightly misleading French spelling of it. A "fez" is technically the name of a specific style of hat named after the Moroccan city, but popularized by the Ottoman Empire (but the fez hat is also called a tarboosh, and also spelled tarbush, so it quickly becomes a language rabbit hole for amateur researchers like myself).
Or how about that particular style of Moroccan slipper shoes? In French one of those slippers is called a "babouche", but that French word is derived from Arabic "babush" (and that word "babush" is just me phonetically spelling out a word that's normally written in Arabic characters). Even still, that's just one of multiple Arabic words that can translate to "slipper" in English.
Language is funny, my friends.
So, don't worry yourself sick trying to determine the proper way to spell a the name of a place or an object, just try your best and choose the spelling you're most comfortable with and keep consistent in whatever post, essay, presentation, or review you're writing. For me, remembering multiple spellings of a place came in handy when geo-tagging locations on social media (like when a tag for "Marrakesh" didn't exist, but a tag for "Marrakech" did). From what I can tell, none of the spellings are flat out wrong, they've just been translated into a few different languages.
What NOT to do when dealing with the language barrier
I don't know what would compel someone to do what I’m about to tell you about, but because I witnessed it with my own eyes I feel obligated to tell you. DO NOT speak English with an Arabic accent. There was a student in our group who swore up and down using the accent helped her get better deals on items when she was haggling. I don't know where she got that idea from, but it's a terrible one. It's insulting in a dozen different ways.
Pensé hablaron Español. Oops.
Before entering the country (and without Googling anything evidently) I assumed more people would speak Spanish having that Morocco is reaaaaally close to Spain. I was convinced I’d finally be able to put my Spanish skills to the test and I thought I’d be the number-one linguistic assistant in our student group, able to translate directions, prices, and food menus when our tour guide wasn’t around. Alas, 44 years of French colonization and proximity to the Middle East proved to extinguish all the dreams I had of being the group’s bilingual savior.
It’s all okay, though, because something even better happened:
My favorite language moment!
I was in Marrakesh, at the Madrasa Ben Youssef, an older gentleman beckoned for my attention. He started speaking to me in Arabic (or was it French?) Either way, I didn't know what he was saying and I responded to him in English to tell him that. In response, however, all I got were a few random countries shouted at me. “Nigeria!” he exclaimed, “Ghana!” he said. Essentially, he was trying to ask me where I was from and kept guessing different countries.
“Oh!” I said when I realized what he was doing. “de América,” I said finally.
“Ahhhh,” he smiled and nodded. “Latin América.” He seemed satisfied.
Though the fact I had autopiloted into answering him in Spanish may have influenced his assumption, I also couldn’t help but believe it was a bit of a racial thing. After all, many people abroad see “American” as being synonymous with “white” simply because America is really good at not having people of color in the many forms of visual media it ships out into the world.
But I digress.
“Oh, no,” I said, correcting the old man. “de Norteamérica.”
You see, in my multilingual social panic I couldn’t remember how to say “United States” in Spanish, let alone French or Arabic. There went my hopes of being a top tier traductora.
Well, when I said was from North America he said, "Ohhhhh!" and responded to me in Spanish. He explained to me that he was from Colombia, a Spanish-speaking country. The five minute conversation that followed was a truly unique experience. I was an American speaking Spanish with a Colombian in Morocco.
Overall, don’t worry too much about it
Seriously. I encountered dozens of locals who were happy to correct my terrible French. Honestly, they seemed to appreciate the fact that I was trying to speak their language, even if I sucked at it. Do what feels comfortable, but don’t limit yourself either. You may well enjoy trying to figure out the best way to tell that shopkeeper that the le collier en argent he’s trying to sell you is about as authentique que votre accent arabe.