Learning French in North and West Africa
September 4, 2008 9:32 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn French in Morocco/Mauritania/Mali - I need suggestions of a place to live...

I have a certain sum of money, my job ends in two weeks, and I'm flying to Spain/Morocco. I would like to travel south through Mauritania and into Mali - but I speak no French. Any suggestions along that route - a smallish but not metropolis city, French speaking - where I can hole up for awhile, rent a very basic (read:cheap) room with a French speaking family and learn via immersion? (I speak Portuguese, self taught in said manner).
posted by iamck to Travel & Transportation around Bucharest, Romania (7 answers total)
French isn't really the language of most families in North Africa except maybe the richest and most pretentious. They speak Arabic at home. They CAN speak French for the most part but they don't speak it among themselves at home. That said, you can probably get by using English in most of North Africa and West Africa...French would be better but they often know a lot of English.

See if there is a French family you can stay with, where you can work on your French.
posted by kenzi23 at 10:55 PM on September 4, 2008

Mali's a great place to visit, but I don't know if I'd want to live there for any extended period of time. In particular, I found the food to be absolutely fucking awful, in the sense that it was extremely basic & extremely bland. Any meat that could be found was tougher than a biker's jacket, but for the most part it was flavourless pulses with rice, with plenty of crunchy dirt inevitably mixed in.

Self-catering was useless, too. Stores were stocked in a kind of wild west fashion: a meagre range of nescafe, tinned condensed milk, margarine, salt, rice, mosquito coils, vegetable oil...you get the idea. My theory was that the shitty restaurant food was a direct result of the shitty availability of shitty ingredients. Your mileage may vary - see what other research you can do on this topic if it's important to you to eat food that doesn't suck ass.

That gripe aside, it's a fascinating place, and the people are very friendly. French is spoken all over.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:37 PM on September 4, 2008

For starters I sort of agree with kenzi23 about the fact that French isn't the first language of people in north and west Africa. For those that do speak French (and it is spoken very, very widely) it's generally their second language having learning it in school. For me, it's a great pleasure speaking French with them though because as a non-native French speaker myself, you can talk to other people and come across like a 9 year-old elementary school student but it's okay because they do too . . . does that make sense? The fact that it's two "French-is-my-second language" people talking with each other sort of takes away the pressure of feeling like you have to get everything just right grammatically and pronunciation-wise. I found that I was much more comfortable in west Africa with approaching people in conversation and feeling like I could potentially make a dumbass of myself. Contrast that with trying to speak French in France (Paris especially) where some people just stare back at you and reply in a condescending tone . . . in English. Anyway . . . this is not to say that you can't find a good level of French spoken in any of the places you mention but you'll have to find educated or well -- and I hate to say this -- wealthier people if you want to learn French that won't make Parisians giggle behind your back. (If that is important to you.)

To your specific question, I think that Rabat might fit the bill pretty well for you. While it's the capital of Morocco, it's not a huge city like Casablanca or Fez or Marrakech. The majority of Moroccans that live there are generally government functionaries or the like. The major benefit (language-wise) is that French is widely spoken (quite well) by most folks there since they will have to use it in their everyday life, working for the government. I'm sure there are a few language schools there as well for that reason. In addition, Rabat is an underrated place to visit -- it's got a very manageable souk, a nice kasbah, some decent beaches nearby, etc. The environs are also quite genuinely Moroccan -- across the river is Sale, which is a pretty poor city and quite conservative; one of the few places in Morocco that might make an uninitiated Anglo type person nervous about "scary Islamic fundamentalists". (Some of the terrorist bombers who participated in the bombing in Casablanca in err . . . 2003 were from there I think. Take that for what it's worth -- I found Sale real cool and interesting. About 40 minutes away is Mohammedia which is a *Moroccan* beach town (i.e., where the Moroccans go to the beach, unlike Agadir, etc.) as only the Moroccans could do. It's impossible to explain without experiencing it. Anyway, Rabat is a great little city with some cool stuff nearby.

In addition, Morocco is by far the most developed of the three countries you've mentioned which obviously has its pros and cons. I mean, they have Carrefour stores -- think Super Walmart -- for sure in Rabat (and I think in Casa and Marrakech as well) so you can get familiar-ish looking products, which might be important for you. Unsurprisingly these products are quite pricey compared to local stuff but when you're craving a pint of Ben and Jerry's, well . . . cost be damned). Morocco in general has gotten quite a bit pricier now that average Europeans have "discovered" it as a beach / sun plus culture vacation destination. (And why shouldn't they -- it's only a four-hour or less flight away from most major European cities.) The "drawback" is that places like Marrakech and Essaouira are unrecognizable compared to ten or even five years ago. They are great places to visit but expect to see lots of tourists. Lots. Being pulled around in Disney-esque horse-drawn carts. I feel guilty complaining about tourists there because tourism is doing SO much for the economy and the people but . . . well . . . I don't want to venture off into the annoying rant of someone who fancies himself a "traveller" but hopefully my main point is getting across. ("What is your main damn point?" Um, right. Good point.)

Mauritania is a wonderful place -- the people are just fantastic -- but I must be honest, it's not a place where you'd want to stay for a long period of time (in my opinion). Nouadhibou is a truly strange place -- sort of like an old lawless wild west town with black marketeers running the place. I know it sounds like an exaggeration but it's true. The place is almost totally isolated and thus, well the government doesn't particularly seem to care what goes on there. Even Mauritanians avoid it if they can. All this said, things might have changed somewhat for the better now that you can cross the Moroccan / Western Sahara border into Mauritania more easily (i.e., without having to follow a military convoy leading the way from Dakhla) but I'm not convinced. It's the only place in many years of travel and work in farther-flung places where I genuinely felt like I was going to get robbed at any moment (and I've been to some really dodgy places). The capital city Nouakchott is kind of boring without much going on and Chinguetti is magical but is very remote and there's not much going on besides its incredible beauty.

Mali is a fantastic place, as UbuRovias said, and yeah the food is kinda weak but what can you do. Here's a crazy idea for you though. How about living in Timbuktu for a month and learn French there? How cool a story would that be? Timbuktu is quite accessible these days. Getting a ride there is a snap or if the river is high enough you can even take a boat most of the way from Bamako and along the way pass through Djenne (which is an absolute fucking must-visit, try to be there for at least one market day) and Mopti (very cool in its own right and also a great place from where you can venture into Dogon country very easily -- another must-visit). Bamako is cool, too -- a very "African" city for northern Africa. It's super chaotic and busy and crazy and intense at times, but wow, it's awesome. Oh man, Mali. I can't say enough about the place -- I love it and could reminisce emotionally (read: blab incessantly) for hours about it but for your purposes of learning French -- beyond the cool factor of Timbuktu -- I'm not sure it's a great fit.

Here's another thought though since you'll be in the neighborhood . . . what about Saint-Louis in Senegal? It's such an awesome little city with lots going on but it's also very relaxed, on the beach, and more "French" than most other African cities with beautiful French colonial architecture in an endearing state of disrepair everywhere... It's a real gem. It's a downright oddball place in a lot of ways for west Africa (for the reasons above) -- New Orleans as compared to New York, if that makes sense (and I'm not sure it does) -- but compared to the freneticism of Dakar and zaniness of Bamako or the "backwater" feeling of many other smaller cities and towns, and it's just different, in a really good way. You'll see more tourists there than you'd expect for a city of 200k people in Africa but not enough to be thoroughly annoying and overwhelming. There's also a good university there, so French classes and good French speakers will be cake to find. In summation, as I think about all this, if I were to do what you're describing I'd go there: Saint-Louis, Senegal.

(For background and an ever-so-slight measure of credibility, I've worked in and travelled extensively in north and west Africa and so, so nearly owned a small hotel in Rabat's kasbah but life had other plans for me . . . sigh.)
posted by lazywhinerkid at 2:47 AM on September 5, 2008 [8 favorites]

Just to add an interesting tidbit about how isolated Nouadhibou, Mauritania is: the only way to make the two-day drive to Nouakchott, the capital city, involves having to drive a ~30 mile stretch on the beach . . . at low tide. Insane.
posted by lazywhinerkid at 3:14 AM on September 5, 2008

I lived in Rabat for about a year, and I agree with the lazywhinerkid - I could speak French to pretty much anyone there, which was nice when my Moroccan Arabic failed me. It's mostly a safe city (especially compared to Casa), but I lived in Agadal, which is one of the nicer areas...some friends lived in the more dodgy areas, though, and they still felt relatively secure.
posted by Liosliath at 10:06 AM on September 5, 2008

I just wanted to reply to lazywhinerkid about his impressions on Nouadhibou. It is now connected by a two-lane highway to the capital Nouakchott. It is also possible to take the road to Morocco, although the Morrocan border control is absurdly long.
posted by aga98mtl at 1:08 PM on September 5, 2008

Ditto Lazywhinerkid about how easy it is to speak French in Morocco, especially compared to France. I find Moroccan French really easy to understand because they speak more slowly and don't swallow their words as much as Parisians. I agree also that the people are incredibly generous and friendly, so speaking French to them doesn't feel scary; they are very pleased to meet people who make an effort and will love it if you speak a few words of Arabic.

You might find it hard to find a family with which to live where they will speak French enough for you to learn it, but you can definitely learn a lot just hanging out with people in big cities. I agree with the suggestion of Rabat; it's a very regular city, not too touristy so it's easy to live there and hang out with regular people. Bigger cities like Rabat are more likely to have more French speakers than smaller towns. I personally prefer Marrakesh but being so heavily visited by tourists you will find it harder to make real connections with people as a lot of the people you will encounter will see you as a tourist from whom they can make money. Casablanca is not too touristic so you will have the same benefits of being in Rabat but you will just be in a much bigger, busier city, which can be good depending on your viewpoint.

It is said, even by Moroccans, that Algerians speak the best French. Anecdotally, I had an Algerian boss and her French was flawless. I can't really vouch for the security situation there, but that's another metafilter question for you to pose.
posted by kenzi23 at 11:28 PM on September 5, 2008

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