Sunday, May 20, 2012

Using French for good (and not evil)

Confession: the first weekend with my host family, I spoke almost exclusively French. I will admit it. I could literally say ten words in Darija and it was too awkward to keep my mouth shut when I had the ability to express myself. A few weeks into CBT, my family switched into full Darija with me; using French only to clarify or teach me a new word. However, if I really struggle or they need to get through to me, they will switch back into French. It can be frustrating when I want to practice, but it can also be a relief when the Darija isn’t there.

The same is true at the taxi stand, the souq, the government office. Moroccans wait patiently as I fumble through my Darija, sometimes arriving at a coherent sentence or sometimes realizing I have been speaking in the totally wrong verb tense. After a few minutes, the driver or store owner calls over a friend who politely asks “parlez-vous Francais?” Simultaneous relief and frustration overwhelm me. I have trained myself to think of French as a crutch; a sign that I have failed in my current language study.

The cat calls compound the vilification of the French language. Boys, teenagers and men frequently hiss, yell or speak to us in the language they assume all Westerners understand. As a young woman, it is inadvisable to respond to the street harassment, leaving me powerless in a language I feel comfortable with. Some days I want nothing more than to school the 14 year-old harassers with vicious French slang, other days I wish I could erase my memory of the entire language.

Today I received a gentle reminder that language doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful. Rachel, my fellow trainee, and I took a small afternoon trip to a nearby lake. We happened upon a conversation with a middle aged French man who is enjoying Morocco for the month of May. Our mixed conversation of French, English and Darija provided two hours of mental gymnastics; unaccustomed to working in three languages at once, my French was merde, Darija was tFu and my English was shit. Yet, despite the poor quality of my verb tenses, it was the most fulfilling experience of the week. And someday, I will share that with my host family. B Darija, Inshallah. 

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