Thought 5: Second Languages

This summer, I’m studying Arabic in multiple methods. I’m studying Arabic as it appears in the media, in song, in literature, in Morocco (dialect=Dariija), and formal standard Arabic. This means I spend roughly 6 hours a day in class, 4 hours a day on homework, and the rest of my waking hours trying to hold a conversation with my classmates–we’re only allowed to speak to each other in Arabic.  The program is designed to be total immersion.  If your last thought involved the word “intense,” you understood the situation correctly.

Last weekend, things got frustrating when all I wanted to do was eat something and speak English. However, here in Morocco, there’s only two ways to obtain food–go to the Suuq (market) or go to a restaurant.  Both of them require me to speak Arabic.  I was out of luck. I was frustrated. All I wanted was some hotdish and a glass of lemonade–two items not for sale at the local Suuq. 

The street that leads to the Suuq doesn’t look like a common American street. The pavement is littered with gravel, there are kids playing soccer where cars should drive, and men hang out on street corners catcalling the occasional lost tourist. There’s a few street vendors selling juice, candy, and small trinkets.  The architecture is colorful and rough around the edges–elegant and comfortable at the same time.  

I picked my way through the street, keeping my head down and finding a vendor with some bread. “Besh Hal?” “10 Dirhem.” Despite the fact I knew I was getting cheated–that price is double what bread should cost–I handed over the equivalent of 2 US dollars for bread. After that, I found a small store–Hanoot–and purchased some yogurt and cheese.  

On the way home, I surveyed the landscape and took a moment to think about the Morocco I know so far. From my perspective, Morocco is challenging. It challenges me to speak and think a language that doesn’t come naturally. I’m studying in a country I don’t know, with people and professors that I’ve never met, in a culture that’s unfamiliar. In that moment, I couldn’t imagine having to live in Morocco for more than a summer–I couldn’t imagine a year, two years, or four years.  

Thinking back to the Suuq, I suddenly wanted to call every friend I know who speaks Arabic–and tell them about my success! I suddenly wanted to brag about the fact that the guy at the counter of the Hanoot had understood my request–that somehow, I knew enough words in Arabic to buy food, do my homework, and hold a conversation about my family.  

And then I realized: every friend I have who speaks Arabic is an international student. Every friend I have who speaks Arabic, speaks it fluently, at a highly educated level, as their first language. And all of those friends speak English with me, in the supermarket, and in all their classes at the University of Iowa–all of them must think and speak in a language that does not come naturally or easily to them. All of them live in the unfamiliar culture that the US is–a place where the rules are unwritten and the consequences for breaking them are steep.  All of them have spent the last several years facing the challenge of cultural and linguistic immersion; a challenge I’ve been facing for only 6 days–and I’m already tired and frustrated. 

I write this not out of pity–but out of a place of humility. I write to recognize hard work, perseverance, and risk-taking. I write to recognize that I have the best friends this world has to offer. 


They are the brave ones, not I.