How To: Study Arabic (and More) in Morocco

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 | Morocco

"...قل هو الله أحد, الله الصمد, لم يلد": In Marrkech's Medersa Ben Yousef, a partial verse from surat al-ikhlas (112).
I spent my first three months in Morocco studying Arabic in Fes. Before leaving the country, I thought it might be useful to share what I learned through that process, as well as what I learned from other students during the year since then. Hopefully prospective study abroad students or anyone else looking to brush up on their Classical or Moroccan Arabic will find this information helpful.

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First, a note on Moroccan Arabic: no, it's not easy. Arabic students who know only Modern Standard Arabic (العربية الفصحى) will at first find very little that is recognizable in the Moroccan dialect, known locally as darija (الدارجة المغربية). Darija incorporates many words and grammatical constructions from French, Spanish, and multiple Berber dialects. However, having heard for years before I came here
that Moroccan Arabic was incomprehensible gibberish and entirely impossible to learn, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived. Yes, darija does sound different at first, and some days in my classes I did feel like I was starting Arabic all over again. But in the end I believe the "vast gulf" between Moroccan and Modern Standard Arabic is a bit exaggerated. Ultimately the dialect was easier to unravel than I had expected. (Knowing French and having previous experience with other Arabic dialects certainly helps.)

Learning darija has been fun, and also extremely rewarding. If mastering a few words of the colloquial dialect gained me some admiration from the locals back in Syria and Jordan, it has done so a lot more here. Moroccans know their language is tough—speak it well, with some local idioms thrown in, and you will earn some serious respect.

Finding a good curriculum in darija isn't easy, as most language centers focus their efforts on teaching Modern Standard. Textbooks are spotty and sometimes seem not to match with the language spoken on the streets. (In part, these "inaccuracies" are inevitable—the dialect varies widely from region to region.) Before you contact schools, have an idea whether you want to study the Moroccan dialect, Modern Standard Arabic, or both.

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In most of Morocco's major cities, at least one or two international language centers exist, gearing their services toward foreigners:
  • In Fes, I studied at the American Language Institute in Fes (ALIF), perhaps the country's most well known Arabic program, attracting a lot of American, British, Japanese, Australian, French, and other foreign students. The darija curriculum I followed at ALIF was strong—as were most of the teachers—but after three months I had essentially maxed out on ALIF's colloquial course, and could no longer find any written materials to use.
  • For me, ALIF's biggest drawback was its high cost. The startup Subul Assalam Centre for the Arabic Language - also in Fes - is far cheaper, though a bit further from town. Like ALIF, Subul Assalam can provide private tutoring, housing help, and other services to students.
  • DMG Arabophon also has a center in Fes, as well as in Casablanca, Kenitra, Meknes, Rabat, and Tangier.
  • Here in Rabat, the Center for Cross Cultural Learning, located in the medina, and Qalam Wa Lawh, in the suburb of Souissi, are popular options.
  • Meknes has the Arab American Language Institute in Morocco, Marrakech has Modern Polytechnic, and Tetouan has Dar Loughat. (I don't know much about these programs.)
  • Al Akhawayn University—Morocco's only American-style university—offers a summer program as well as full enrollment and short-term study abroad options at its campus in Ifrane. Unlike the other sites, the university is not located in a city—Ifrane is a small, isolated university town in the Middle Atlas.
Small, local language centers exist in great number in almost every city in Morocco, most of them catering to locals seeking to learn French, English, Spanish, or other foreign languages. Studying Arabic at one of these smaller centers is often possible, but be aware that many lack the support services and network available at the larger, more internationally focused centers. The prices are, as a result, much lower.

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Finally, some additional information for American readers. (Apologies to everyone else, but as an American, I'm just more "plugged in" to the opportunities available to US citizens here in Morocco.)
Good luck to all, and الله معكم.


Jillian C. York said...

I think darija's actually really easy, but IF and only if you have only a minimal background in standard Arabic (e.g., know the alphabet and pronunciation, maybe basic vocab). Then, you're learning darija as a new language entirely, and grammatically, it's actually quite simple. Had I had more of an Arabic background when I started, it would have been much more difficult, I think.
That said, I think going from darija to standard Arabic isn't so bad...I'm doing okay with it.

Jillian C. York said...

Also - wow, when did AALIM in Meknes start up? I'm almost positive that wasn't there when I was...awesome!

Andrew G. Farrand said...

I'm a purist, and think that everyone should start with Modern Standard Arabic - learn the alphabet, vocabulary, and most importantly the verb chart. ( ) It's the base of the entire language, and if you try to learn Darija or any other dialect without knowing the verb chart, it will never really make sense to you the way it does if you understand the underlying architecture of the language.
That's just the particular nature of Arabic. Unlike English, it's a highly regimented, organized language. Even in Darija, which introduces the sloppy, human, living-language mashup phenomenon, the fundamental structure of classical Arabic still exists.
The bottom line: To really understand the beauty of this language is an amazing feeling, and I hope more people keep learning Arabic so they can experience it!

Malaika said...

I want to suggest that you could add to the "funding" aspect of this guide the Ibn Battuta Scholarships that Qalam wa Lawh Center in Rabat offers. They are merit based awards providing students free housing and tuition for an entire semester. The link is:

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thanks, Malaika. Sounds like a great opportunity. Hopefully some readers will look into it.

Unknown said...

Hello Andrew, I have read through your blog, and it looks so amazing and so helpful for anyone coming to Morocco. Thus, I wanted to kindly ask you to share our website about Learning Arabic in Morocco and Volunteering. Our website is a non-profit organization as well as a center that helps out the community of Rabat.

Thank you

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