Blogging About Language, Part 1: Why I’m Afraid of Cucumbers

(This one’s a little late – I wrote it while during Pre-Service Training and never had enough internet to post it!)

Dozens of Moroccan middle school students stand in an uneven circle behind the youth center. They’re intently watching a short foreign woman – maybe French, maybe Spanish, they’re not sure – as she attempts to teach them a game. Everything about the woman and the game is new and different and exciting.  “Ready?” she says (in Darija). “Everyone look at me. PENIS!”

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We wisely abandoned the penis game for a rousing round of Duck Duck Goose.

…Yep. That was me. So it goes! One of the many hard things about Moroccan Arabic (also known as Darija) is how many gosh darn shameful words there are that only fractionally differ from some very banal, everyday words. I’m blessed with being skilled at the Semitic “kh” sound, but those poor Arabic learners who struggle with it had best avoid the word for “empty” lest they seriously curse someone out!

It’s a fascinating process to be learning a language full-time. Of course, if you know me then you know that this is my DREAM situation – and I relish the speedy standard to which we are held (conversational competency after 2 months!). My training group has Arabic class for at least half the day, six days a week. It’s a serious intellectual workout, and one that I enjoy immensely.

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Studying hard! And shivering. It’s freezing in our classroom.

Every day more and more words fall out of the long strands of babble and into clarity and meaning. It feels a bit like I’m adjusting the lens focus of part of my brain, veeeery slowly – or as we say in Darija, shwiya b shwiya. Not all days see exponential growth; some days I get a lot of words, some days I barely scrape a few new ones into my memory. As an organizer, I often talked about finding and appreciating the “small victories” along the way to the larger goal, and I have definitely had to put that philosophy into practice here. I would feel very discouraged if I did not treat every successful verb conjugation as a small personal triumph!

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Almost against my will, my French has turned out to be very helpful. For one, Darija is littered with French, and a significant number of nouns have evident roots in French. I would actually hazard that French is more helpful than Modern Standard Arabic, which several of my classmates have significant experience in, because of how frequently and significantly it diverges from Moroccan Arabic; but I expect they would disagree with me. At the beginning of our time here I spoke more French than I probably should have with my host family, but the tradeoff to my language abilities was that I was able to be a person with humor and opinions, instead of a lump who zoned out during family time. Now that my Darija is much better, I’m trying to insist to my family that we only resort to French when I need a direct translation for a word we can’t act out.

Of course, my host family has been an integral part of my language learning, and each member has a different approach to helping me along. Some are very didactic and authoritative about it, and (to my great annoyance) make a big show of teaching me verbs they seem not to have noticed I’ve been using correctly for weeks. Others simply (and gleefully) point to things at the dinner table and say, “Leah! Leah! What’s this? What’s this?” As a result, during most meals I sit there and sporadically spout random nouns in between bites. “Knife!” “Apple!” “Bowl-designed-for-carrying-soup!”

Unfortunately, the “what’s this” line of questioning is a particularly dangerous one, as it can lead to this sort of exchange:

Family: Leah, what’s this? What’s this!!?? {brandishing it in my face}
Leah: Ummm….. Oh I know this one, I know this one…. [*&!$#@]!
Family: {dies laughing} No, Leah, cucumber!
Leah: [*&!$#@]?
Family: No, cucumber! CUCUMBER! CU-CUM-BER!
Leah: Isn’t that what I’m saying? [*&!$#@]? Isn’t that it?
Family: {literally on the floor laughing at this point} No, you said – well we won’t say it, it’s shameful. But you said something naughty!

Later:

Leah: Teacher, please tell me what cucumber is in Darija. Earlier I tried to say it, and I ended up saying a shameful word.
Arabic teacher: There is no shameful word that is similar to cucumber.
Leah: [*&!$#@].
Arabic teacher: Oh, why yes! I guess there IS a shameful word that is similar to cucumber!

Even though I now know the word for cucumber, I’m still a little convinced that I’m going to end up saying the shameful word. (Spoiler alert: I was saying poop. GET OVER IT MOROCCANS. POOP IS JUST POOP.) Anyway, these days I call cucumbers “zucchini” and let Moroccans hysterically correct me. Better they laugh at me for calling cucumbers zucchini than for calling cucumbers poop, right?

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