Columns, Opinion

Worldview: Morocco’s language dilemma

In an increasingly interconnected world, proficiency in multiple languages can be of paramount importance in small and mid-sized countries. Emphasis on teaching foreign languages can have the adverse effect of minimizing the relevance of the indigenous culture.

The relationship between globalization and nationalism is one of the defining issues of the 21st century, and language is a forefront component of this conflict. In Morocco, debates over language created very tangible economic consequences and sparked a heated debate about which language or languages the future Moroccan generations ought to speak.

Technically, Morocco only has two official languages: Arabic and Amazigh, also known as Berber. Morocco’s geographic relevance as a connecting point between Europe, Africa and the Americas, coupled with its history under French and Spanish colonial control, has caused foreign languages, namely French, Spanish (Castilian) and English, to gain a special level of relevance in the country.

Proficiency in any of these three languages, but especially in French, is necessary for any Moroccan who wishes to get higher education and prosper financially.

In Moroccan universities, many courses are taught exclusively in French. This makes obtaining higher education extremely difficult for young Moroccans who are generally taught in Arabic in high school.

In Morocco, around 66 percent of students are unable to complete their education at public universities mostly because they cannot speak French.

Moreover, only half of middle schoolers in Morocco move on to high school, and less than 15 percent of high schoolers graduate due to the policy of teaching in classical Arabic rather than the local dialect, Darija, which is influenced heavily by Amazigh, French and Spanish.

The government in Rabat has sought to address this crisis by proposing reintroducing French into some high school courses, but there has been considerable opposition to such a move. Understandably, opponents interpret such a policy as a betrayal of Moroccan identity and an admittance that the policy of Arabization, which took place after Morocco gained independence in 1956, was a mistake.

In a Reuters article, Hassan Adili, a lawmaker from the Justice and Development Party, argued that, “Openness to the world should not be used as an excuse to impose the primacy of French.”

Proponents of the policy change insist that knowledge in French is imperative.

“In the Moroccan job market, mastery of French is indispensable,” said Hamid El Otmani, head of talent and training at the Confederation of Moroccan Employers, in the article. “Those who do not have command of French are considered illiterate.”

This debate is further complicated by the greater interest in English and Spanish as complimentary languages or even as substitutes for French or Arabic. Javier Galvan Guijo, the director of the Cervantes Institute in Rabat, reported in 2017 that 11 percent more Moroccan students reported interest in learning Spanish compared to 2016.

Guijo commented, “Moroccans are proving more and more that Castilian is not a foreign language; moreover Spanish and Moroccan cultures are so closely linked to one another that we cannot understand them separately.”

Given that the northern strip of Morocco was controlled by Spain from 1912 to 1956 and that Spain still controls the cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the northern coast, Spanish is generally preferred to French in the north of the country.

Moreover, interest in English is also growing in the country, as it is increasingly seen as a being more useful than French. In a 2015 poll of more than 41,000 participants, nearly 86 percent of respondents favored replacing French with English as the country’s primary foreign language.

Ali Anthony Bell, the head of studies at the BKHS Language Center in Casablanca, wrote in an opinion piece in 2016 that while he agrees that English ought to be emphasized in Moroccan education, it should not supplant other languages.

He wrote, “All of the languages spoken in Morocco are a part of its identity, and replacing one language with another in the educational system, would be a fundamental error. English should not be a replacement for either French or Arabic, or even Amazigh for that matter; it is a complementary language skill.”

Regardless of the track the government ultimately decides to take, it is undeniable that Morocco’s education system is currently being undermined by its contradictory language policy. This is the simultaneous curse and blessing of globalization.

There are greater opportunities in global investment and international trade, but the contortions a country must perform to fully take advantage of these opportunities will inevitably incite great debate and contention.

In the case of Morocco, the language debate must be resolved if the country is to fix its broken education system. The cost to indigenous culture and language, however, could make these necessary reforms hard to swallow.

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