When I Grow up I Want to be a Polyglot

As I mentioned in a previous post, next year we are going to be living in the U.S.  I’m doing a masters in clinical social work with a specialization in trauma counseling and refugee issues.  If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know how important these issues are to me. I have already chosen my classes, and I am in the process of finding a field placement to start in September.  Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I think, if it were next year already, I’d be on my way to learn about human behavior or to meet trauma patients!  I’m excited about it.
During these last few months, I am trying to enjoy the things I’ll miss about Morocco (like pomegranates), and to prepare for next year.  One thing I’ve been doing is studying Spanish at the local Instituto Cervantes.  I studied Spanish in school, but I want to be at a level where I’m comfortable having a conversation or giving information, as I think that will be really useful as a social worker in the U.S.  I’m also enjoying the opportunity to study another language now that I have more language learning tools under my belt.  Here are some things I’ve learned from studying French (more info on that process here) and from teaching English.
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I hope I am going in the right direction.

  • There is no reason to be embarrassed about making mistakes.  When I was learning French, I felt like it was like riding a roller coaster because I would get so emotional about successes and failures.  It might be easy to worry whether my fellow students like me or think I’m smart, but it is more important for me to practice speaking Spanish than to not say something stupid in front of a group of people I don’t know that well.
  • Motivation is perhaps the most important factor in language learning.  Learning a new language takes time, so it is crucial to be dedicated and to put in time studying, listening to music, reading, and reviewing.  Three hours a week of class isn’t enough for anyone to learn a language, so it is really up to the student to learn or not.
  • Personally, I study best alone.  I think everyone needs to find how they learn best, and I make the most progress reading and doing exercises by myself.  I love to read, so finding books I like makes a huge difference for me.
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I would like to study on this lovely rooftop in Rabat.

  • You don’t need to find a special method or spend a lot of money to learn a language.  I find that one of the best ways to practice is just to try to describe a situation in my head in Spanish while I’m walking to work.  For example, I’ll imagine that my teacher might ask me what I did last weekend, and I’ll go through my answer in my head.  Once I get a chance, I’ll look up whichever words I wanted to use but didn’t know.  This is a good way to expand useful vocabulary.
  • Finally, language learning is a lot of fun.  Once I got to the point in French where I was no longer translating in my head but instead was just coming up with what I wanted to say, it started to be so much fun to speak in French.  Once I realized that I could read novels or watch movies in French and enjoy them, a new world of culture, literature, film, and friendships opened up to me.  I can’t wait to have the same experience with Spanish!
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Things I Wish more Moroccans Knew about Morocco

A while ago, I wrote a list of things I wish more Americans knew about Morocco.  Here’s the complementary post; what I wish more Moroccans knew about their own country.

  1. There are a lot of foreigners.  There are not just French expats, but Americans, Africans, Asians, and other Europeans.  And not all of them are rich, contrary to popular opinion.
  2. It is incredibly difficult for those foreigners to get visas.  My explanations of what I have to go through to renew my residency are met by surprised looks from Moroccans, and knowing nods from other foreigners.  I heard that the majority of French expats in Morocco just don’t bother getting visas, and leave every few months in order to continue living on a tourist visa.
  3. There is a big Christian presence in Morocco.  There are churches in every major city, and there are several different denominations represented.

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    Seats for the wedding guests at our church

  4. It is much easier and much more useful to learn French than to learn Arabic.  I came to Morocco with the intention of learning more Arabic, but ended up learning French out of necessity.  Speaking French has allowed me to make friends, communicate with others, and be a better English teacher.
  5. It is not dangerous to walk by yourself in Casablanca.  I walk to work every day, and have never felt unsafe (although I do often get annoyed by the traffic and by men).  I am occasionally told that I should not walk, but I think it’s actually safer than putting my life in the hands of an impatient taxi driver.

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    This Meknes taximan was ready to pick us up, but we wanted to walk.

  6. There are a lot of wonderful things that Morocco has that the United States does NOT have.  For example, vacation homes for big companies, maternity leave and generous vacation day policies,  cheap organic produce, and cleaning ladies who will clean your apartment once a week for a small price.  Which explains my first point, that there are a lot of foreigners.

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    Also, beautiful weather

There are Chatty Women in French Classes all over the World

When I entered the classroom, there was one Moroccan woman sitting ready in her seat, new course books in front of her. She looked to be about ten years younger than my mother, and was wearing a beige and blue veil that almost matched the blue of our course book. I whispered “bonjour” to the woman before sitting in my own seat and arranging my own books on the desk, two blue paperback books for French as a foreign language. More students filed in, mostly Moroccan women. About half were the same age as the first woman, and about half around my age. We were all students in the high intermediate class at the French Institute in Casablanca, Morocco, although were all there for different reasons. Once the class was nearly full, everyone started quietly flipping through the course book, waiting for the class to start. The teacher came in about 5 minutes late, bringing an abrupt end to the silence in the room.

“Bonjour les enfants!” She waltzed into the room, not pausing for a second to check if anyone had been offended that she had referred to them as children. “Vous allez bien? Vous n’avez pas froid? Il fait vraiment froid aujourd’hui, je l’ai dit ce matin, et je continue à le dire. C’est vraiment l’hiver!” The other students smiled and nodded, still a little shy. The teacher set down her bag and arranged her coat and scarf on the chair before beginning to walk around the circle of desks to ask for introductions. The first student to speak was a Moroccan university student, still living with his parents, but thinking about studying in France. As soon as he finished his introduction, all shyness seemed to have dissipated from the room, at least from the Moroccans. One of the older women began a story about a Moroccan girl she had known who left her family at 18 years to study in France and who became an alcoholic. “But that’s not typical,” she explained. “My daughter is 20 years old, and she is studying in Belgium. She’s a good student, very sure of her values, knows where she comes from.” The teacher stopped the introductions to give a quick description of the French language exams we could take and what would be required for university studies. Her description was punctuated by frequent comments from the students, who already knew a few things about the exams. The next woman then introduced herself; a 30-year-old housewife, married to a doctor, and four months pregnant. Everyone congratulated her, and another one of the older women gave a quick and unsolicited warning about not consuming too much sugar during the pregnancy.

The next student was a student of medicine. She said she had already been accepted to do the preparatory years in France, but her parents wouldn’t let her go. She had therefore lost one year of study, and had been obliged to do the program in Morocco, but wanted to reapply the next year to go abroad. The three older women were next; all three were housewives, and all three had grown children. I was last, since I had sat at the far end of the circle, furthest from the door but close to the board. I knew I had a soft voice, so I figured I would be more likely to be heard if I sat near the teacher. I gave my name, described a bit about my job, explained where I am from in the U.S., and how long I had lived in Morocco. “C’est tout,” I said, and shrugged my shoulders.

As soon as I finished, one of the older women called out, “Are you married?” I smiled and said no, not married, but engaged. The woman next to her shouted out, “to a Moroccan?”

“No,” I said, “not to a Moroccan.”

“All the better for her!” Called the student of medicine. The teacher jumped back into the conversation at that point, shushing the building commotion.

“Les enfants! Calmez-vous! We are going to speak one by one. Why do you say better for her? What is wrong with marrying a Moroccan?”

Five hands shot up. One by one, the other students explained that the Moroccan Man is lazy, does not know how to wash dishes, and sits watching TV while his wife works in the home. The two male students in the class objected briefly, but after some prodding, revealed that neither of them had ever washed a dish. “My mother doesn’t even let me wash dishes at home! She knows I would just break them.” One of the older women admitted to being ashamed for having to ask her husband for money for the French classes, but said that he preferred that she not work. The medicine student said that Moroccan men are spoiled by their mothers and expect the same from their wives. The pregnant woman finished by telling me that it’s really much better for me to marry an American anyway.

The teacher, noticing that everyone in the French class had spoken a lot except me, asked me if I could say how I met my fiancé. In giving the story of how we met at our church in another city in Morocco, I mentioned that he is not in fact American, but Central African. The teacher moved closer to me and asked if I could say what country he was from. “La Centrafrique,” I repeated.

“Il est noir?” the medical student asked. The teacher said, “ah ok, le centre d’Afrique. Il n’est pas Americain alors.” I wanted to jump in again and clarify that he is in fact from “La Centrafrique,” or “La Republique Centrafricaine,” a country that is in the center of Africa, but I didn’t because I always have difficultly pronouncing all the syllables the name of the country and didn’t want to trip over my words on the very first day. The class was no longer erupting with new comments; it was totally quiet for a few seconds. Then the pregnant woman chimed in again to give the last word. “My husband is a doctor, and he once worked in Senegal. He said that his coworkers were very kind. Well-educated, gentle, respectful; yes, they are really nice people.”

I wanted to answer her by saying that I have never known anyone from Senegal, and that I have no idea whether that’s true or not. But I decided to hold my tongue; that was enough excitement for one session of French class.

Learning Language like a Three-Year-Old

I find myself taking a lot of lessons from kindergarteners, and language learning is one of them.  I don’t think that adults are necessarily much worse language learners than kids, but we do have several disadvantages:

  • Kids who learn foreign languages usually study for many years, including being fully immersed
  • Kids are free when they speak; they are not inhibited by feeling self-conscious
  • When one learns a language at a young age, it is usually done through immersion in conversation and by learning from everyday situations, books, and interactions, instead of from grammar lessons and lectures
  • Children who are in a sink-or-swim situation are very motivated; for example they might have to learn a language to succeed in school or make friends

I took a French class in the fall and felt that I learned very little from it.  I was really disappointed for a while, until I realized that the reason why I got so little from the class was because I learned so much French elsewhere.  So I’ve decided not to continue with lessons, because I want to learn French like a kindergartener.  However, since I cannot quite put myself in that situation, and because I have the benefit of another 20 years of life, I am going to try to expedite the process.

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Here I am, about to go to kindergarten.

I don’t have many years just for learning French, but I do have plenty of opportunities for immersion (and to put myself in sink-or-swim situations!), and I can choose my own songs, books, and movies to move myself forward.  I also have the benefit of having studied other languages and understanding grammar.  At the moment, I have decided to focus on which tenses people use when they talk so that I can improve how I conjugate verbs.  So that is my plan of how to learn from my students, but also take advantage of the fact that I am not three.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

Insider vs. Outsider

The most important thing I learned the first time I lived in Morocco was that I am not Moroccan. It seems obvious, but it sure took me a long time to learn. I wanted to study at a Moroccan university because I wanted to have lots of Moroccan friends, participate in Moroccan traditions, and speak Moroccan Arabic.  The friends I have made in Morocco are certainly friends I never would have made anywhere else, and I’ve learned a lot about traditions, culture, and language.  However, I haven’t really made any close Moroccan friends.  But I am okay with that; just because I am not having the experience I expected, doesn’t mean I’m not learning a lot.

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One thing I have learned is how to make peanut sauce with cassava.

As I’ve mentioned before, I love living in Morocco. But perhaps not for things directly related to Moroccan culture. I originally came here to study Arabic, but now, after many hours of Standard Arabic I actually prefer to take this opportunity to learn French.  And that’s a great thing to do here, because Moroccans are not judgmental of bad French! I also have really enjoyed being part of Christian communities in Morocco, and I think being part of a minority has strengthened those bonds and made my place in the community more obvious. To give a more mundane example, I also really love tea, and I enjoy that there are many types of tea available, but I don’t really like how sugary Moroccan mint tea is. So in general, I benefit from the situation I am in because of being in Morocco, but not necessarily for the obvious reasons.

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This Moroccan mint tea set is contributing to my apartment’s Christmas decorations.

I think it is important to learn about the culture you are living in, but I also think that it is important not to forget who you are and how you may or may not fit into your host country. I’m not Moroccan…but I am so thankful for what I have learned and experienced in this country, because those things would not be the same anywhere else in the world.

C’est le Moment ou Jamais

After church today, someone I had never met before came up to me and started speaking in French.  I understood him, and responded in French.  Then he said something else in French, and I responded to that and posed another question.  In French!  Back and forth and back and forth, like a conversation between two people.  I was pretty proud of myself.
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They spoke French, too.

I’m shy in any language, so I have mostly practiced French with close friends of mine, and am often timid about speaking up in Francophone Situations.  I also feel really bad every time someone has to translate something for me; I think that if I’m living in a Francophone country, have a Francophone boyfriend, and go to a Francophone church, I should really be able to speak French.  Every chance I get to practice is a roller coaster of emotions (sort of) depending on how successful I am in speaking and understanding.  Sometimes I’ll have a long conversation in French with someone I know, and then someone I haven’t spoken to before will come ask me a question and I’ll have no clue how to respond.  Or I’ll understand a whole sermon and then will miss that the pastor just asked everyone to stand up.  Up and down on the roller coaster of Francophone emotion.

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This is a real roller coaster.

Hopefully after a few more months, I’ll be a lot more confident about speaking French.  I’ll keep you updated.  And I’ll keep working my hardest to improve.  It’s now or never!

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If this guy could speak, it would probably be in French.

Teaching vs. Studying

Now that I have started my French classes, I am both a teacher and a student at the same time.  In fact, I’m teaching a language while studying another one, although in different contexts.  Kindergarteners and adults are pretty different populations to teach, but I’d say that some of my teacher experiences are helpful in my student experiences, and vice versa.

DSCF9358I thought I was done with all that studying! My dad’s knowing look in the background suggests that he knew I wasn’t.

Teaching young children is a lot about understanding their personalities and motivations.  How my class ends up progressing also depends on my own personality and on my style of teaching.  My students might get the same curriculum as my coworker’s students, but they’ll still learn different procedures and behavioral responses from being with me every day.  My French class is the same; our teacher led our first discussion on the interaction of men and women in Morocco because she is interested in feminism and politics, and it is clear that we are going to have to have opinions (in French) on those topics.  The first word she wrote on the board was “un misogyne,” a misogynist.  I didn’t write that one down…it doesn’t come up in conversation much for me, even in English.

IMG_3189This would be a nice place to be instead of being at work.

When I was a college student, I often had days where I really didn’t want to be in class.  As a teacher, I certainly also have those days, but it’s much less okay for me to show it.  If a teacher doesn’t feel like teaching, the whole class will struggle that day.  So I hope to come to my French classes with the same ambition and energy I have for the classes I teach.  Especially now that I know what it’s like to be on the other side!