Sunday, May 04, 2008

Study Arabic in Morocco

Obviously, the best way to acquire any language is to study it in the country where it is spoken. However, in the case of studying Arabic in Morocco, this is no easy task. There exists Modern Standard Arabic which is spoken/understood throughout the Arabic world and Colloquial Arabic which is different in many Arabic countries and is not like Modern Standard. Morocco falls under the category of having a colloquial dialect. So the challenge for the student coming to Morocco is to decide which should be studied first. Below is a brief overview of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Colloquial Moroccan Arabic (CMA)which might help in making a decision.

While both Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Colloquial Moroccan Arabic (CMA) are largely derived from the same basic source (so-called "Classical Arabic"), they are in many ways two distinct languages. MSA is the language of the news media, written correspondence, official documents, literature and formal speeches. As strange as it might sound, MSA is not a language spoken fluently by the majority of Moroccans (or Arabs, for that matter).

Though few educated Moroccans have difficulty reading Arabic and understanding Arabic news broadcasts, few of them feel truly confident in using it as a means of oral communication. To further complicate matters for ALIF students wishing to practice their MSA outside of class, many Moroccan professionals have been educated in France or in a French mold, so that in discussing more intellectual or technical topics they may have difficulty expressing themselves without turning to French.

It is not uncommon for a foreign student trying to make conversation with a Moroccan in MSA to be answered in French. Obviously, if you don't know French or (wisely) pretend not to know it, the Moroccan in question will be forced to struggle to express himself or herself in as correct a variety of MSA as he/she can muster.

Students of MSA should not have unrealistic expectations about chatting in literary Arabic with the corner grocer - whose native language may well be Berber anyway! It bears pointing out that for most Moroccans MSA spoken in day to day situations has an almost comical quality about it, comparable perhaps to the effect of speaking Shakespearean English with a small-town grocer.

Concerning the local dialect, this is much easier to practice outside the classroom. However, even when initiating a conversation in CMA, a student may get a response in French from a Moroccan. This may be due to their not believing their ears and having an automatic reaction of conversing in French with foreigners, or it may be due to your own lack of mastery of the dialect. Persistence pays off in such situations and a pretended or real ignorance of French often opens the door to fruitful conversational practice.

At the same time, it should be remembered that CMA has many (Arabized) French loan words and that Moroccans frequently intersperse their speech in CMA with additional vocabulary, phrases and expressions from French, even when speaking to each other. Students should be aware of the limitations inherent in studying CMA, since sooner or later (usually after 3 six week sessions) they reach a plateau in their ability to discuss more intellectual topics (economics, religion, etc.) beyond which they can only proceed by studying MSA from which vocabulary and phraseology are drawn.

Without formally studying MSA they will never gain an adequate ability to comprehend news broadcasts or read newspapers. Students should also understand the typical Moroccan attitude towards CMA: it is not regarded as a “language” in the formal sense of the word and Moroccans may be quite bewildered by the fact that you are studying it formally. For them, only MSA is a written language with formal rules and conventions. They may express astonishment if they see you studying from a CMA course book, and even make remarks suggesting that CMA is not "real" Arabic.

Finally, students of CMA should accept the fact that their hard-earned knowledge of CMA will be of very little value beyond the confines of North Africa. To illustrate this point, it should suffice to note that the common every day words for "bread", "want", "need" and "go" are totally different in CMA and the Egyptian dialect. Concerning the latter, Cairene colloquial Arabic is passively understood by many Moroccans thanks to the diffusion of Egyptian made films on Moroccan television.

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