I was recently driving in a car with an acquaintance who was finishing a business call on speakerphone. As she and her colleague ticked through a few decisions, they slid effortlessly among Arabic, French and a little English. There seemed to be no reason that one phrase or word or reply to a question was in one language or another, it was just a slipstream of linguistic dexterity that they barely recognized. When she hung up the call, I felt like applauding at the conclusion of a performance.
Morocco's mix of cultures was one of its chief attractions for me, and with that comes an astonishing patois of languages. Arabic and French are listed as the two official languages spoken, and while that might already seem impressive to a monolinguist* it belies the real complexity of language here.
My attempts at speaking a few self-taught words and phrases in classic Arabic are usually met with appreciative curiosity and an explanation that, we don't really say it that way here. The Moroccan dialect of Arabic is Darija, and as I pick up more words and phrases from conversation, I'm increasingly uncertain of exactly what language I'm actually learning.
Because it also could be Berber.
My first weeks here were is hardcore Berber country, the cities and villages in the Atlas Mountains and desert. The people I interacted with proudly Berber and were eager to point out, sure you can "shukran" (thank you) but you can ALSO say "tanmert!" Their excitement in teaching me Berber accelerated my interest in learning it, such that by the time I was back in a region more dominated by Arabic culture I was chastened by the odd looks I got when I proudly offered a few Berber phrases.
And then there is French, a language with which I have the faintest acquaintance. Most of the words I know in French I learned from studying Russian, which borrowed liberally from French during the critical years of Enlightenment hero-worship. The shared DNA of Western European languages allows me to piece together more comprehension of French than I rightly should, driving home how utterly hapless my language comprehension is in general.
Most days and most places, I can get by on a mix of a few words in Arabic and French, the respectable knowledge of English that many people have here, and a lot of dramatic gestures that require checking your self-conciousness at the door. I also throw in a near-constant apologetic smile. I sometimes I try to imagine how I appear to strangers here: as an idiot savant, maybe. Gleefully using charades to communicate what my language can't and repeating the same few phrases I've mastered whether they fit the situation or not. (Me: "Good morning!" Storekeeper: "Good morning ma'am, what do you need?" Me: "Good morning!")
Being in a foreign language environment has compelled two strange reactions in me. The first is that my command of English is deteriorating, as I strip my spoken English to the simplest nouns and verbs to be better understood. (I note here my gratitude and respect in finding someone who speaks English at all, likely their fourth or fifth language.) When we were hiking, Liz and I had a mule carrying our gear, that we named Nora. And we'd ask our guide, "Where's Nora?" And He told us once, "Nora is break." This is alarming because he had worried early about how hard it is for mules to walk in deep snow, which we encountered. Nora broke her leg?! No, Nora is taking a break, she's resting. From then on, it became easy to lapse into minimally correct English. Nora is break. Liz is dinner. Patti is Internet.
And second, my original foreign language, Russian, keeps rising irrepressibly to the surface. No matter the language barrier I'm navigating, I find myself reverting to Russian impulsively, as if leaning on the memory of overcoming a language difference once. Countless times, I've found myself answering in Russian, when I finally understand what someone is saying to me in French or Arabic. It's a weird tic that may stay with me for the rest of my life.
Mastery of Arabic, Darija, Berber or French will elude me during just a few months here, but one lesson has penetrated: the ability to communicate in many languages isn't just a nifty skill, it's how the world gets along.
* I met a Berber man who grew up as a nomad until he was 9 years old, when his family settled in a town. He's taught himself four European languages in order to make a living in the tourist industry, and knows quite a bit of several more languages. I told him this well-worn joke:
What do a call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do a call person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language?