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Dealing with the Language Barrier

Posted by on September 28, 2016

With my host mom in Meknes, Morocco.

When I chose to study abroad in Morocco, language was one of my primary considerations. After two and a half years of studying Arabic at UMW, I knew I wanted to go somewhere where I could continue studying it, and Morocco was my top choice. Though I knew communication would be a challenge, it was a challenge I was excited to meet and I could not wait to apply my intermediate level Arabic skills. Upon arriving in Morocco, I quickly learned that this was far more daunting than I had initially imagined. The Moroccan Arabic dialect is so different from classical Arabic that I could hardly understand a word, and the prospect of communicating with strangers seemed completely terrifying. Though I faced communication challenges throughout my abroad experience, I gradually learned ways to overcome my fears, make connections with Moroccan people, and feel more comfortable speaking in Arabic.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Push yourself! Speaking in a foreign language can be scary—it is one thing to practice speaking to your classmates and instructor in America, but it is an entirely different ball game when you have to communicate important information to someone who does not speak any English. In my first few days in Morocco, I felt uncomfortable even trying to say “thank you” in Arabic. Needless to say, I very soon realized that I had no choice but to step out of my comfort zone. I talked to shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and restaurant waiters—and guess what? I didn’t die! In fact, some of my most meaningful interactions came when I pushed myself to speak to local people in their own language.
  2. Don’t be afraid to sound like a 4-year-old. The only way to really improve your speaking skills is to practice, and sounding like a little kid is part of the process. Though I had taken Arabic before, my vocabulary was extremely limited and I found that grammar was just way too much to keep up with when conversing. At first I felt stupid trying to talk with my host family and other Moroccans in Arabic, but my life in Morocco became so much easier when I stopped caring about making mistakes and just tried my best. Most of the time, they could understand me even when my pronunciation and grammar were way off. A lot of Moroccans were impressed that I knew any Arabic at all and were overall very supportive and patient when I talked to them.
  3. Prepare to be humbled. During my time abroad, I had many interactions that left me feeling frustrated and discouraged. I was once trying on clothes in a store when a friendly employee asked if everything fit okay. In a panic, I forgot what country I was in and replied, “Si.” Later, as I was checking out, the cashier was attempting to tell me the price of my purchase. Still feeling flustered, I had to have her repeat it several times, leading her to ask if I spoke any French. The previous employee quietly answered, saying in Arabic “no, she is Italian.” I resisted the desire to run frantically out the door and finished the payment. I had these kinds of embarrassing interactions quite frequently, and though they are quite humbling at the time, they make for good stories later.

Dealing with a language barrier is a huge challenge, but if you push yourself to keep trying, you will improve tremendously and gain confidence in yourself and your abilities.

Lydia Grossman 3Lydia Grossman
International Affairs Major
Environmental Sustainability Minor
IES Rabat, Morocco

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