Episode 39: America the Bilingual Goes to Morocco

Aziz Goumi (left) helps Steve interview Mohamed El Kachir (center),who speaks Tamazight (pronounced “Amaziri,” and also called Berber) as his native language. He also speaks Arabic, French, Spanish and English.

In the United States, we hear periodic news reports about people being accosted for speaking another language in public. In order to be a patriotic, real American, one must, it seems, speak only English. If you do happen to speak another language, you should keep it at home, or in your church, maybe. And if your other language happens to be Arabic, for heaven’s sake, don’t speak it in an airport.

This is what’s normal in many parts of America today. But there was also a time in America when it was normal that African Americans were enslaved. When women could not vote. When gays couldn’t show affection in public — and certainly could not marry.

What’s normal is that America changes, and thank goodness it does. We have gradually, and very unevenly, granted rights and personhood to those Americans among us who have been denied those things.

Envisioning a new normal for languages in America

And so, when it comes to rights, what could be a better example of free speech than to be able to speak freely in public in another language? And when it comes to patriotism, what could be more patriotic than defending our country by actually being able to understand our allies, and our enemies, in their own languages?

To help us envision such a new normal in America, it’s helpful to visit other countries where people already do view bilingualism as vital to their national interests. No nation can match America in the quantity and diversity of our immigrants. But other nations are ahead of us in realizing that bilingualism can be a strength rather than a weakness, and thus in finding effective ways to invest in their human linguistic capital. By visiting and listening to others outside of our borders, we can collect ideas for the new American normal we wish to create.

In Episode 39 of the America the Bilingual podcast, I take you to one of those countries, Morocco, where I had the privilege of meeting a group of people who showed just how a linguistically diverse nation can function — and much of the time, harmoniously.

Luckily, my camel was used to hearing different languages.