Polyglots in Morocco

Moroccan rugs Marrakech

Rugs in the souks of Marrakech

When I visited Morocco in March, I was not just impressed by the World Heritage Ksar and the one-humped camels. I was equally blown away by the polyglots of the country—a loosely defined word meaning “speakers of many languages.”

The souks of Marrakech provided a fantastic example of how tourism fuels language learning. We normally associate English as the language of tourism, and Morocco was no exception: every vendor knew at least enough English to sufficiently hassle you until you a) nearly flipped them off, or b) caved and bought a camel keychain you never knew you needed.

Marrakech souks

The souks of Marrakech

But Morocco was a melting pot of languages like I’d never before witnessed. As a prior French colony, most Moroccans know French along with the official language of Arabic, both Moroccan and Modern Standard. (Arabic varies hugely between the countries that use it, so Standard Arabic is the lingua franca for writing and formal speech.) As a country with a mushrooming tourism industry, many add four or five tongues to their reportoire. I met vendors who started bargaining with me in English; they switched to Spanish once I lied and said I was a Spain native (thinking maybe they would hassle me less). When they found out I was living in Bilbao, some began rambling off words in Euskera. (Euskera! A language of less than a million!) Our tour guide through a desert oasis easily accommodated our Japanese comrades with some words of their own language, and assured an older couple in their native Italian that the precarious river crossing over slippery stepping stones was a piece of cake. He also spoke a dialect of Berber, the language of the native people of Morocco and the country’s second official language.

Camel ride Sahara Morocco

Sunset camel ride through the Sahara

Me: “Je suis malade! Il y a des toilettes?” (I’m sick! Are there any toilets?)

Driver: “Aprés, aprés. Maintenant, les sacs!” (Later, later. For now, plastic bags!)

Sure, my recent rainy-day hobby of reading French grammar books proved somewhat useful, but the Moroccan polyglots put me to shame.

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  • I was also very impressed with Moroccans’ linguistic abilities–or at least the shopkeepers or faux guides out there hustling on the street. It seems like EVERYBODY knows Arabic and French in Morocco, or Spanish in the far north, plus Berber if they are, uh, Berber, and a decent amount of English, too.

    I ran into a Jewish faux guide in the Jewish quarter of Fez last year who spoke Arabic, Hebrew, Berber, French, Spanish, and English. Out. Of. Control. I was amazed.

    • That. is. insane. Is that considered a sexlinguist? Or just a polyglot? If only I could reach that number of languages!!

  • Linda Peltzman

    Nice to hear that wonderful goods still available and vendors still haggle in many languages. Most noticeable change in the market place photos from 1978 is they look MUCH CLEANER!!!!!!
    While living in Germany we spent a summer touring Spain and Morocco in our camper van. Spain is my favorite country. Happy you are soaking it up in Bilbao!

    • Jenny

      ….Much cleaner!!! Can’t imagine how it was in 1978 then, haha!! And I love Spain too, excited to be coming back next year :)