Morocco’s Woe of Words Highlights the Wider Struggle for Linguistic Survival

The new school year will begin in Morocco next Tuesday. This year, unlike previous ones, schools will be able to teach certain subjects in French rather than Arabic, the usual language of instruction. In universities, where the language of instruction is French, some courses will now also be taught in Arabic.

The education reform law, passed at the start of this month, has stirred emotions. Is it a capitulation to the language of Morocco’s former colonizer, France? Or does it enhance the status of Arabic, an official language of Morocco (the other is Amazigh, the Berber language)? The point of the reforms are to better prepare the workforce for the jobs market, where French is often required, especially as around half of university students never complete their education, often as a result of a lack of proficiency in French. But given the history of the colonial period, when French was mandated in schools and Arabic sidelined, it has become a touchy topic.

Morocco’s woe of words is not confined to it alone. Countries across the Middle East have grappled over which language their children should learn in. But in worrying so much about linguistic survival, Morocco is failing to take steps toward linguistic revival. Finding ways to promote the Arabic that the majority of Moroccans speak would be a better use of politicians’ time than marginalizing the language of past elites.

Schools and universities across the Middle East use a mixture of English, Arabic and French as their language of instruction. In Egypt it is mainly Arabic and English. In Lebanon, different universities use all three languages. The best university in the Middle East, according to this year’s Times Higher Education rankings, is Saudi Arabia’s King Abdelaziz University, where the language of instruction is mainly English, with some Arabic. Everywhere, Arabic-speakers fret that their children don’t know their mother tongue sufficiently well, and that English keeps creeping in through television, film and music.

The issue is, inevitably, political, given the history of foreign domination. Nationalist political parties like the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq made it an explicit part of their governing to ensure the primacy of Arabic, even going so far as to replace non-Arabic scientific and technological terms with Arabic variants.

Nor are Arabic-speaking countries, nor indeed former colonies, alone in worrying about foreign language domination. Former colonial powers are too. In 2013, France witnessed street protests against a plan to allow English-language teaching in universities – ironically, in part to attract more students from Arab and Asian countries. Critics were outraged, arguing that it would undermine the French language. “Shall we speak English in this French parliament one day?” thundered one politician. Still, the proposal passed.

For English-speakers, linguistic nationalism, in France or the Arab world, can seem quaint and overly paternalistic. Language, surely, evolves, and if English provides a better word for “email” (courriel in French, albareed al electroni in Arabic), so be it. After all, it works the other way too: the English language has yet to furnish a better alternative to the Arabic al-kuhl or the French omelette.

Such a laissez faire attitude is borne of uncontested dominance. English is the world’s lingua franca (itself a term referencing a previously common but now extinct pidgin language), spoken by more people in more places than anything else, the common language of expats in Dubai and politicians in Brussels.

Yet language does not function in a global marketplace, where whoever has the better words wins. It is bound up with identity, culture and even faith. Sometimes it needs a bit of help to thrive.

In the case of Morocco, there are specific things that can be done to help Arabic. The first is to blur the distinction between the version of Arabic taught in schools, Modern Standard Arabic, and that used in daily life, Darija, a mix of Arabic, Amazigh and European languages. That happened on a small scale last year, when Morocco introduced school textbooks containing a handful of Darija words instead of classical Arabic. It sparked a social media uproar.

But that process is, on balance, positive, drawing a closer link between the words children use at home, and hear all around them, and those they interact with in education. That is particularly important because Darija is already commonly used in popular music and in television shows (though not political shows). It already surrounds most Moroccans. Using it in school is accepting a current reality.

The second would be to use Darija in public settings to discuss serious topics; politicians should take the lead here. It would be controversial, certainly, but Morocco’s politicians would only be following in the footsteps of Muslim preachers, for whom the use of colloquial language was once far more sensitive. Now, however, the discussion of religious topics in colloquial Arabic by a new generation of preachers is accepted.

Reforming Morocco’s education system will not be easy. Neighboring Tunisia and Algeria have grappled with similar questions. Changing a teaching language touches on issues of identity and history, but it is also a prosaic, pressing political question of how to do the best by the current generation of Moroccan pupils.

Stripped of its political and historical context, straighter answers emerge: if the government wants pupils to learn in Arabic, it must use the Arabic they live with. If it wants university students to study in French, it must prepare them before they arrive. As with learning a language, so with political questions: it’s best to start from first principles.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.