A tangle of languages

February 3, 2012

Take a minute to imagine that your childhood went a little like this…

You start out your life with your parents speaking only English to you, and to anyone for that matter. Because that’s the only language they know. They never really went to school.

You get a decent start on English, learning from your parents, extended family, and household visitors, and even the occasional English language cartoon that pops up on the television. The rest of the cartoons and programs you see on the TV are in a mix of other languages that you only ever hear coming out of the box, so you probably don’t grasp them too well, but just maybe you pick up a thing or two.

By the time you can communicate as clearly in English as another kid, around four or five years of age, you start going to preschool (if your parents can afford it). All the sudden you start learning not one, or two, but THREE new languages on top of English. The teacher starts to talk to you and direct you in Spanish, while you study French AND Italian. Spanish is what the powerful ethnic group in your country speaks, so you better learn it. French is what the government and newspapers work in, while Italian is the language of business, commerce, economics, and higher education. If you want to get anywhere in your life, you have to become a real polyglot.

So your parents can only communicate to you in English, but your teacher runs you through the loops on French and Italian lessons while all of her non-lesson-specific communication is in Spanish.

And that continues from the time you’re four or five until you end your schooling, which could be anywhere from the age of 12 and up. If you actually do go to university, you’d better get a strong grip on all of those languages…

The reality seems to be, though, that the majority of people who have to tackle that many languages from the very beginning of their schooling end up not being really stellar at a single one of them. And here I suppose I can really only talk about my personal observations in my corner of rural Morocco.

One example really stands out to me. Hanging out one day with the nursing staff at the clinic in my market town, I watched as five Moroccans stood over an official form trying to decide the correct way to express a sentence in Modern Standard Arabic. It looked like a fairly routine form. I’m not sure if they were looking for a certain word or a bit of grammar, but I think it was a word.

To be sure English speakers often find themselves struggling for the right way to express something. But in America we don’t really have the issue of struggling to express ourselves in a second language, which just happens to be the official language of the country. (Native Spanish speakers might have issues, but English isn’t an officially sanctioned national language, just the de facto one.)

Anyway, I just think it’s fascinating. And it’s so far from the average white American’s experience, this tangle of languages. So many Americans huff and puff about the intrusion and inclusion of Spanish… when the study and use of multiple languages are simply facts in the lives of so many other people around the world.

I thought to myself, in the beginning, how awesome it is for kids to be studying so many languages! Only a lucky few in America ever study another language before their teenage years. What a great help it must be…

I’ve had a surprising number of Moroccans describe the situation as more of a handicap, though. They’re the ones who pointed out to me that the multidirectional bombardment can really stunt one’s ability in any single second language.

My example above is quite similar to the reality that I see here with my host family in Morocco. I just changed the languages around. Here, many children speak Tashlheit (Tamazight/Berber) with their families. That is their mother tongue. Their teachers often speak to them in Moroccan Arabic, a dialect quite far removed from the Modern Standard Arabic that is Morocco’s official national language, the language of the government and newspapers. French is the language of business, medical topics, and higher education.

Tashlheit includes a fair amount of Moroccan Arabic vocabulary, simply conjugated and adjusted to the Berber language, but it is its own separate language. Moroccan Arabic includes a higher percentage of Modern Standard Arabic vocabulary, but the grammar is very different. MS Arabic is a tricky beast for anyone to learn. French is its own language, of course, very different from any of the others in vocabulary and grammar and just about any other aspect.

The past few days I’ve been trying to get my first grade host brother to study with me. Both of his parents are illiterate, so they can’t help with his exercises. His aunt knows how to read, but even though she lives at the house, she’s not around a whole lot. I enjoy studying with him. Partially because it helps me brush up on my Arabic, but also because it seems so important to a kid’s learning to have someone show interest and encouragement. I’ve seen other families in town, or in other places in Morocco, where the parents are literate and help their students review. What a difference it must make. I feel like I have at least a touch of new understanding for the obstacles people have to overcome to be the first educated generation in their families…

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~ by marjmallow on February 3, 2012.

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