Donkey, driver and cart, Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech, Morocco.

Learning the Moroccan Language — French or Arabic?

Nothing brings a smile to the face of a local in the Middle East and North Africa than a foreigner saying salam aleikum, or peace be upon you — which is really just a nice way of saying hello.

Just try it and see what we mean. And if someone greets you with those words and you respond with aleikum salam (or in other words, peace right back to you), just watch that serious face break into a smile and formerly expressionless eyes sparkle.

It was partly out of habit of using salam aleikum, a greeting second nature to us from our years living in the UAE and travelling the Middle East, that we resisted the natural reaction to respond to bonjour in French. But it was also, partly, an aversion to using the language of the coloniser, and it was, partly, just out of fun — just to hear that warm response in Arabic and get that fantastic grin that usually accompanies it.

Moroccans seem to expect that every foreigner speaks some French, and that’s the language that you’ll mostly be spoken to in as you wander the souqs and Djemma Al Fna. But that doesn’t mean that Moroccans prefer to speak French. On the contrary, the Moroccans we met were delighted we had some Arabic basics and were eager to help us learn more. Don’t get us wrong — we’re keen to improve our rudimentary French, but that can wait until we get to France. In Morocco, we were set on developing our ‘Moroccan’, or rather, Moroccan version of Arabic. Because it is different.

For example, in the Gulf region we say khalas for enough, but in Morocco they say safi — a word you’ll find yourself using a lot on the Djemma Al Fna. It’s a key one to learn and said firmly and with confidence is extremely effective! We used khalas until a waiter taught us safi, and while we had still been understood until then by the touts on the square, they were most certainly muttering khaleeji (Gulf Arabs) under their breath.

Learning some of the language of the places we’re living in is one of our aims this year, and we’re intent on trying a number of different techniques, from learning from locals we meet in everyday situations to more formal language classes to just using phrase books and dictionaries. We’ll let you know how we go and share some tips with you on the way.

Moroccan Language (Arabic) basics:

Hello — Salaam Aleikum
Goodbye — B’salama (more like ‘M’asalama in the Gulf)
Yes — Ayeh (Nam in the Gulf)
No — La
How are you? — Labas?
Good — M’zein
Thank you — Shukran
Left — Alyssar
Right — Alyamin
Let’s go! — Yalla!

There are 5 comments

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  1. David Whitley

    Ah… so that would be why ‘khalas’ wasn’t particularly effective for me then…

    I found myself using a weird combination of French, English and “la shukran” (which I’m not even sure is grammatically correct). Interestingly, although French is a de facto lingua franca, some of the younger Moroccans I spoke to said they prefer using and are stronger in English.

  2. Angela

    Oh great, I speak French and am learning Arabic, I won’t have problems in Morocco, then: Yalla! 😉

  3. Lara Dunston

    David – don’t worry, I also found some Spanish and Italian words slipping in to my sentences all the time, then arrived in Spain and I’m saying ‘oui’ and ‘shukran’! Though outside of the souqs, shops and restaurants, we didn’t actually meet many Moroccans who spoke great English. French was used until we said we had 20 words of Arabic and then they were keen to teach us more – especially after we revealed we’d lived in Dubai where we had a greater chance of improving our Tagalog or Urdu.

    Angela – wallah, you won’t have any problems here at all! Yella! Yella!

  4. Paul


    Anybody know of schools or teachers in Essaouira for learning arabic. I will be spending 1 or 2 months here.

    Thanks Paul

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