By Shelley A. Gable
Instructional designer and freelance writer
FEZ, MOROCCO | Unless you already speak Arabic, you may be wondering how to best communicate with locals when you travel to Morocco. As with any population, Moroccans tend to appreciate visitors who attempt to speak their language; however, in Morocco, Arabic is not your only option.
According to ethnologue.com: “The number of individual languages listed for Morocco is 14. All are living languages. Of these, four are institutional, four are developing, two are vigorous (Ghomara and Tamazight), and four are in trouble. “ That latter four are Senhaja Berber and Taznatit. Dharija is the main form of communication among most Moroccans used in daily life and media. It is spoken by 85% of Moroccans either as a mother tongue or second language.
English is emerging, especially in larger cities.
If you’re on a mainstream tourist path, English speakers abound. Museums, tourism companies, hotels (mid-range and above) and tourist-oriented restaurants all tend to have staff available who are skilled enough in English to at least discuss their services and pricing.
Similarly, many merchants in the Fez and Marrakech Medinas know enough English to call out for your attention and negotiate a sale. Despite this, few restaurants seem to offer menus in English, regardless of where you are. And most taxi drivers, even in larger cities, speak very little (if any) English.
That said, English is growing in popularity among educated youth. It is among the languages introduced in public primary schools, and it is on the rise in private schools.
Recently, English is established as a foreign language to be studied at different levels of the and not only universities and high schools as happened in the past. Today teaching and learning English is another duty given to the student along his educational life. As you start to wander away from the larger cities and tourist attractions, English quickly becomes less common. If you intend to travel independently or explore less-frequented areas of the country, basic phrases in a more common language come in handy.
French is Morocco’s unofficial second language.
France and Spain controlled Morocco in the early 1900s, and though Morocco gained independence in 1956, French remains widely spoken by Moroccans of all ages throughout much of the country.
French functions as the language of government, diplomacy and business. Primary schools introduce French to students in their third year, increasing its use every year into secondary school and employing it as the language for teaching scientific subjects. Universities embrace French as their primary language of instruction.
Though not as common in villages and remote areas, cities of varying sizes have French-speaking taxi drivers, restaurants with menus in French, and sometimes even French street signs.
Even if you only took a year or two of French in school, you may find it well worth your time to brush up on the basics just enough to master a few words and refer to a French phrasebook with ease. And speakers of other romance languages may find it easier to familiarize themselves with a little French, compared to picking up some Arabic.
Spanish can help in the north.
Spanish is somewhat common in northern Morocco, and it can be a helpful communication supplement when attempting to make reservations, navigate transactions and understand directions. It’s especially handy if you opt to hop over one of the land borders into Ceuta or Melilla, both autonomous Spanish cities on Morocco’s northern coast.
Berber is the indigenous language.
The Berbers are an indigenous population living primarily in the Rif Mountains and in parts of the Atlas Mountains. In Morocco, three major regional dialects of Berber exist. Though Arabic is widely spoken among the population, many Moroccan guidebooks provide a few Berber phrases for those who opt to travel to the most remote Berber areas.
And of course, it never hurts to attempt a few Berber words when you’re in those regions — even if just please and thank you. After all, nearly everyone enjoys a visitor’s attempt at the local language. A simple effort often leads to a warm reception and a bit of friendly conversation.
Landmarks of Fez will let you get into the history and feel the atmosphere of these legendary places.
One of them is Fes El Bali, the medina quarter which is surrounded by a medieval wall and inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. There are around 9400 streets and side-streets, this is one of the biggest car-free area in the world.
Classical Arabic differs from Moroccan Arabic.
Morocco’s official language is classical Arabic, which is the standard Arabic spoken by much of the Middle East. However, Morocco’s unique dialect of Arabic is what the population speaks.
If you opt to learn basic Arabic in preparation for your trip, make sure you learn Moroccan Arabic, specifically. While Moroccans understand standard Arabic, it may not help you understand Moroccans.
Although learning some Arabic can help you communicate more easily throughout the country, it is not absolutely critical for enjoying your visit. If you can speak some French, are skilled with animated gestures, plan to stay in large cities or tourist mainstays, or have other arrangements to help you get around (e.g., traveling with a guide or tour group), then you’ll do well with a few simple words that simply show that you’re willing to try.