We’ve been in Morocco a little over a year now, and the 4 of us who didn’t speak Arabic or French when we arrived have all increased our knowledge of these two languages. However, as I stopped to reflect, I realized we also all represent different types of language learners, and thereby we have achieved different levels of success with Arabic and French. Here’s where we currently are as language learners:
Samir – Sam is a baby and so knew nothing when we arrived. He was only 3 months old after all. However, now at 16 months old, he completely understand when you speak to him in Arabic, just the same as you had spoken to him in English. He doesn’t have much spoken vocabulary yet, but his receptive vocabulary is very high in both Arabic and English. He has had very little exposure to French, as he has spent his days with me (in English) or my husband and/or the nanny (in Arabic), but I can tell by how he responds to the Arabic that if he continues to be in this type of environment, he will view Arabic as a mother tongue. He will be my truly “native speaker”.
Zaiyd – Zaiyd was 3 1/2 when we came to Morocco. He knew how to speak very well in English, and was beginning to learn to read in English. In Arabic, he knew the letters and a few key words and phrases. In French, he knew nothing. He began school in a program where 1/2 of his day is spent in French and 1/2 of his day is spent in Arabic. Although his day was quite long, it was more focused on coloring, singing and vocabulary. He amassed a huge vocabulary in both Arabic and French quite quickly. However, due to his personality, he chooses not to speak in French or Arabic as often as he can get away with, to the point of hearing and understanding the French sentence, and then responding directly in English, showing he understands, but does not want to take the time to work on the spoken piece if he can be understood in English. Zaiyd also took a preference for French over Arabic and so his French vocabulary started to surpass his Arabic vocabulary. There are certain concepts that he learned in school (in French and/or Arabic) before we worked on them at home in English. For example, Zaiyd is much more comfortable with the days of the week in French than he is in English. While French and Arabic will never be Zaiyd’s mother tounge, it seems that if he continues to be in this type of environment, he will definitely be fluent in both shortly.
Khalil – Kal was 7 when we came to Morocco. He attended Prek – 1st grade in a Georgia Public School in the US. He could read and write well in English. In Arabic, he knew the letters, his body parts, and a few key words and phrases. In French. he knew nothing. He began school in a program where 1/2 of his day is spent in French and 1/2 of his day is spent in Arabic. Instead of going to second grade, he completed first grade again. He learned to read and write again, both in French and in Arabic. He learned grammar, memorized poems and Koran verses, and learned to write in pen. He had some difficulty with the differences in the school systems, but he thoroughly enjoyed school. Kal loves to learn and he threw himself into conquering these two languages. Kal took a preference for Arabic and really enjoyed reading the street signs to us and reciting the Koran verses he had memorized via rote (even if he didn’t completely understand them yet.) He was able to use his base in English to understand new concepts, and still translates his learning from Arabic (or French) into English in order to understand it completely. Like Zaiyd, Kal will be fluent if he continues to be in this type of environment, in fact he already communicates quite well in both languages. However, most of the concepts Kal learns in English and then his brain does a lot of translating between languages.
Me – I was 28 when we came to Morocco. I was (and still am) a teacher, who is used to helping kids learn English, but I never mastered a language myself. I learned quite a bit of Spanish in high school, but was never immersed into the language and have never felt that I am fluent there – although I am quite comfortable with the language. I took one semester of French in college, so I had a small base of French. I visited Morocco 6 years ago, and have lived with a Moroccan (my wonderful husband) for almost 10 years, so I knew some key phrases in Arabic, lots of food names, animal names, body parts etc., but I was far from fluent, and barely comfortable, in Arabic. Unlike the kids, I don’t get to spend my days immersed in the language. Instead, I teach English all day, and am in English speaking environments about 80% to 90% of the time. I did take Arabic classes (twice a week for an hour at a time), and I’ve been in plenty of situations where no one speaks English. However, after a year here, I’m still so very far from capable. I can get through the pleasantries of polite conversations. I can get my basic needs met. I can understand the gist of a conversation, and I know how much the merchants are asking for when I buy something. However, there is so much I would like to say, and understand in French and Arabic, that I don’t. I have had to make myself understand that my boys will ALWAYS speak better French and Arabic than I do. I have had to make myself understand that I’m doing the best that I can. I’ve had to remind myself that I am speaking and understanding much more than I was last year. I have to remind myself that it doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t know if I’ll ever be fluent in French or Arabic, but I know I’ll keep trying and learning.