How I Learned French for Free in Morocco

November 15, 2012

Once I decided to travel to Morocco, another idea began to form. I knew that French was commonly spoken in the North African country. And something intrigued me about the language shared by romantic and villainous cartoon characters alike. So, I asked myself, why not try to pick up French while I was in a francophone country? Alas, there was only one problem. Besides s'il vous plaĆ®t and merci beaucoup, of French I knew absolutely rien de rien. Another issue then presented itself. I wasn't willing to pay rien de rien to learn either. Thus the seeds for an audacious experiment were planted.

The first step towards learning French was to start personal study of the language. I had several months before my planned arrival in Morocco, so I started combing the internet for study material. I found plenty. There were heaps of helpful websites, useful Youtube videos, and informative podcasts. There were even entire textbooks with accompanying audio files available for download; perhaps legal, perhaps, ahem, "fallen off the back of the internet truck", but in any case, very helpful.

When I arrived in Morocco, sloppily handwritten French notes in tow, I deemed myself ready to start conversing with locals. However, I immediately observed that the most common response to my attempts at conversation was more visual than verbal: a face painted in a quizzical state of confusion. It didn't take long to figure out what was wrong. All of my precious studying had done little to produce a comprehensible French accent. Merde.

This was going to take more work than I'd anticipated, I realized. How was I going to improve if no one could understand me well enough to hold a simple conversation? I needed to practice speaking with someone who had the incentive to listen and help me. But French tutors wouldn't do this for free. There was another way, however. It was time to make some exchange partners.

Nine years prior, I had spent a semester studying Spanish in the beautiful city of Granada, Spain. The university in which I'd enrolled had an exchange program whereby local students learning English could meet up with foreigners studying Spanish. I took full advantage of this opportunity. Several times a week I'd meet with a local student over tea, and we'd practice English for an hour or so, then Spanish for around an hour. My Spanish improved considerably as a result.

I wasn't in Spain anymore, and I wasn't enrolled in a Moroccan university either. But I was confident that I could find some locals eager to practice English with a native speaker in exchange for sitting through some poorly pronounced French. After all, this is one huge advantage held by Americans, Brits, Aussies, and anyone else hailing from an English-speaking country. Everywhere in the world, people want to learn our language.

Based upon the recommendation of a friend who'd once lived there, I decided to base myself in Morocco's laid-back capital, Rabat. Immediately upon stepping out of the city's train station and onto the pleasant palm tree-lined main avenue of downtown, I knew I'd made the right choice.

Slideshow of Rabat, Morocco

I found a place to stay and started online research of local English language schools, where I'd hoped to find exchange partners. I came upon the facebook page of an institution called the American Language Center (ALC) in Rabat. There were over 2000 members of their facebook group, so I figured this would be a good place to start and gauge interest. I posted a message on their wall proposing that anyone interested in a French-English language exchange contact me. Within 24 hours, I had dozens of responses!

I also created a profile on a website called My Language Exchange, where many locals seeking to practice English also had profiles. Through the contacts I made on that site as well as the ALC, I suddenly was in touch with a veritable bounty of potential exchange partners. I swapped phone numbers with some of those who seemed the most serious and set up initial meetings. The experiment had begun in earnest.

The next day I met over tea with two different young people, one in the morning and the afternoon. As their English was far superior to my French, for the first hour we spoke in my native language. When we then switched to French, I was at pains to confidently express even simple thoughts. It must have been frustratingly difficult for them to comprehend. But because I'd helped with their English, they patiently sat and listened. Whenever the other person said a word I didn't understand, or I was unaware of the French word for something I wished to say, I'd ask for help. I'd then immediately write the appropriate word down in a small notebook. By the end of the day I'd recorded dozens of new vocabulary words.

So went the first week, each day seeing new tea-fueled meetings with new exchange partners and more stunted attempts at conversations in French. It was arduously slow-going at first. But little by little I noticed that the language was starting to come easier. I held out hope that in a few weeks I'd be able to hold a simple discussion without difficulty.

I soon settled into a routine. I'd wake up each morning, have breakfast, and review what I'd learned the day prior. I'd proceed to study a new chapter of French for an hour or so. Then I'd head out to begin the day's exchanges, normally held in one of Rabat's many outdoor cafes. During any free time between exchanges I'd study vocabulary, which I'd written on blank business-sized cards, French on one side and English on the other. In the evening I'd return back to my room, copy all the new words I'd learned onto new vocabulary cards and add them to the rapidly growing pile. To wrap up the day, I'd get in touch with exchange partners and set up more meetings for later in the week.

In effect, I'd created my own intensive French immersion program. But in contrast to the thousands of dollars people typically pay for such courses, I wasn't spending a dime. Unless, of course, you count all the mint tea I was drinking in cafes. But given that Moroccan tea is the best in the world, this felt more like a luxury than an expense!

Moreover, I noticed a major advantage to the type of self-guided program that I undertook. Instead of following a one-sized fits all, standardized curricula, I could always go right to the heart of what i needed to learn. The feedback I received during my exchanges helped me determine what I should study next. And sitting across from me, while not a trained professor, was someone that could resolve most questions that I had.

Apart from improving my French, I was also meeting many interesting locals. I enjoyed learning about their lives and gaining insight into their fascinating culture. Warmth and hospitality come very naturally to Moroccans. So I wasn't surprised when some of my exchange partners blossomed into genuine friends. I was invited into homes for meals, introduced to friends and families. This was an experience that no expensive immersion program could truly replicate, and one that I will never forget.

With exchange buddies Soumaya, Boubacar, Ismail, Oussama, Youssef, and Amine

The only major roadblock I encountered while learning French in Rabat was that I wasn't truly immersed in the language. While a vast number of Moroccans speak French, Arabic is the language of the street. So, my listening comprehension was not constantly engaged. As a result, it was more difficult to develop the habit of thinking in French, a crucial part of gaining fluency. If I'd been based in certain another francophone countries in Africa, in Quebec, or, obviously, in France, the learning process would have been much sped up.


After one month of self-imposed language study in Rabat, I packed my things and got ready to move on. My French had improved by leaps and bounds. While I couldn't claim to be fluent, I was now speaking at a conversational level. And if at some point in the future I wanted to achieve true fluency, the path ahead was pretty clear. It would take more hard work. It would take more time. But money? Rien de rien.


1 comment :

  1. wow! very inspiring! Here I am googling French courses in Morocco and I stumble upon your blog post!
    I am currently doing conversation exchange in France so maybe I will stay here and put more effort like you did.
    Thanks for sharing!