Juggling Tamazight, Arabic, Darija, and French, Morocco continues to debate languages as a hot topic among political parties, the education sector, and activists.
Rabat – The continued dominance of French as a foreign language in Morocco angers some Moroccans, who believe that English, if not becoming the dominant language, should at least be on equal footing with French.
Although Morocco’s Constitution recognizes only two languages—standard Arabic and Tamazight (Berber)—in daily life many Moroccans speak Darija, the distinct Moroccan dialect of Arabic, and Morocco has a history of using French in official communication as well as increasing interest in using English in educational instruction.
Should English replace French?
When France established a protectorate in Morocco in 1912 after the signing of the Treaty of Fez, the colonizer imposed French on the Moroccan education system.
Since then, French, along with Arabic, have been the two languages used most in business, diplomacy, and government.
In January, Morocco’s Minister of Education Said Amzazi said English could not replace French as a language of instruction for at least another 10 years. His comments angered some Moroccans who believe the government should shift its focus towards English.
The minister argued that Morocco does not have qualified teachers in English to ensure the success of replacing French.
Amzazi, however, did acknowledge that there are more science books available in English than in French.
The official’s statement received a counter response from former minister of finance Niar Baraka, who is also the secretary-general of the opposition Al Istiqlal Party.
Teaching science in French is a crime
During an event in Tetouan, northern Morocco, in February, Baraka said that teaching science in French is “wrong.”
He said it is “a crime against students and against Morocco.”
Right after independence in 1956, activists called for an end to French teaching and for the Moroccan education system to be entirely Arabized.
The country, however, failed to fulfill this objective because there were not enough professors and teachers of Arabic in Morocco. Instead, Morocco hired teachers from other Arab countries, including Syria and Sudan.
In 1970, Baraka’s Al Istiqlal opposition party campaigned on the urgent need to Arabize the educational system.
“When students reach the baccalaureate, they have [mastered only] primary levels in French. How can we allow a student who doesn’t know the simplest rules of French to become a professor after graduation?” Baraka asked.
Baraka also criticized the low level of Moroccan students in Arabic, their mother tongue.
Standard Arabic has been used in official government meetings since Moroccan independence in 1956. But Moroccans often use Darija to communicate, even in formal settings, such as classrooms and Parliament.
In defense of French
The well-known Moroccan researcher Ahmed Assid strongly criticized Baraka’s statements against French.
Assid told Morocco World News that Baraka was exaggerating and hypocritical.
“We should put an end to the political hypocrisy in our country. The leaders who talk about [the dominance of French] enroll their children in French cultural missions. They don’t teach them the Arabic language,” Assid told MWN.
He added that if French is a “crime, then they have to stop committing crimes against their children.”
Assid argued that Arabization “failed miserably” and should be ended. He also called for more openness to French for the sake of achieving a higher quality of education.
Failure of Moroccan schools: Arabic is not guilty
According to Baraka, Arabization is not to blame for the failure of Moroccan schools.
“It is wrong to consider the Arabic language responsible for the failure of education in our country,” Baraka said. He emphasized that the failure has other causes like overcrowding and lack of administrative and educational frameworks, as outlined in a recent World Bank report.
In response to a question about students’ poor Arabic skills despite Arabization, Baraka said that Arabization “happened very quickly, and the teachers were not well trained to perform their task as required.”
‘We have a real problem in all languages’
For his part, Moroccan author Abderrahim Elalam criticized the low quality of Arabic teaching in Morocco.
Elalam told Morocco World News that now even in universities, students struggle to write a correct sentence in Arabic, the mother tongue.
“Students now cannot send you a text message in Arabic, they choose Latin letters to message people but in Darija,” Elalam lamented.
“In the past, as scholars, we were discussing the content of Ph.D. theses, but now we are discussing how students write their thesis and the language used,” he added.
“Even Darija nowadays is lost, most of the people are not able to speak in a classy Darija. We have a real problem in all languages: French, Arabic and English.”
Elalam, however, acknowledged that there are some people who are aware of the importance of languages, especially English.
Elalam also said that English is emerging, especially in language centers and Moroccan universities. Moroccan universities offer three majors in English: Media and cultural studies, literature, and linguistics.
English, however, is not offered in state medical schools or engineering schools, although it is offered in some private schools. In the labor market, most companies and public institutions require prospective employees to speak French.
Some “elite” Moroccans also prefer to speak in French in both formal and informal situations.
At the same time, others see English as the language of globalization and believe it should be given preference over French in Morocco.
Both Assid and Elalam agreed with the education minister that if Morocco shifts its foreign language focus from French to English, it would take time.
The scholars said that it would be “difficult” for Morocco to shift towards English because France is considered one of Morocco’s most important allies.
They noted that language is linked to politics, emphasizing that France supports Morocco’s territorial integrity and several other Moroccan causes.
Is Morocco’s second language French or Tamazight?
The education ministry rubbed activists the wrong way when it referred to French as a second language in Morocco. Activists have heavily criticized the government and its leader, Saad Eddine El Othmani, for disfavoring Tamazight (Berber).
Tamazight is spoken by 30-40 million Amazigh (Berber) people, the majority of whom live in Morocco and Algeria.
After independence, Moroccan activists called on the government to include Tamazight in the education system. The 2011 Constitution answered the call, making Tamazight an official language alongside standard Arabic.
Al Istiqlal party members have been some of those saying Arabic and Tamazight should be obligatory languages used in public institutions and daily life.
According to Assid, their call is in line with the Constitution, and unlike in the past, the party is now calling for more than just Arabization.
Al Istiqlal is “now correcting its first position and is acknowledging the Amazigh language as an official language.”
Assid said the party “calls for the sole usage of Arabic and Amazigh, but it is against foreign languages,” referring to French.
He argued that it should be acceptable for Moroccans to use French if they want to. “Morocco is an independent country, but Moroccans are producing many important things through French,” he argued.
Languages: A global question
The Moroccan government is not the only cabinet to face pressure regarding the use of languages in education. As just one example, the Netherlands has five official languages: Dutch, Papiamento, Yiddish, English, and Frisian. Other popular languages among the Netherlands’ Muslim population are Arabic and Turkish, according to Amsterdam.info.
The Dutch government is also tackling concerns over the widespread use of English crowding out Dutch inside universities in the Netherlands.
The BBC wrote in October 2018 that 60 percent of the master’s programs offered at Utrecht University are in English.
“At the highest honours level, virtually no courses are taught in Dutch.”
It remains to be seen whether the Moroccan government will manage to balance its official languages of Arabic and Tamazight with its foreign options of French and English inside educational institutions.