During an informative lecture in Morocco in November 2016, respected Kuwaiti businessman and scholar Tareq Al-Suwaidan became frustrated when he found only French instructions as he tried to set up his microphone. He condemned the language for its uselessness in the contemporary world and insisted that Moroccans quickly make English a priority.
Al-Suwaidan argued that English is the language of science, tourism, civilization, business, and more. This engaging display of dissatisfaction resurfaced a 60-year-old debate among Moroccan society: Should the country embrace English as its second language instead of French?
From 1912 to 1956, Morocco existed under a French protectorate. During this time, French culture and style had considerable influence on the country. Some city streets came to resemble those of Paris, and, causing the current debate, the French language became strongly established in the Moroccan school system.
In their first grade, young Moroccan students learn classical Arabic. Usually just one year later, they learn French in a systematic way that quickly establishes it as their second formal language.
In contemporary Moroccan society, however, a unique dialect, Darija, is spoken, a combination of colloquial Arabic, Amazigh (Berber), French, and Spanish. Making communication even more complicated, a considerable portion of the Moroccan population speaks one or more Amazigh dialect as their mother tongue.
The national language debate from this multitude of spoken languages asks which ones should be prioritized for new generations of Moroccan students.
Could English be a unifying force?
A powerful argument within this debate is whether English should be required in the early years of students’ instruction in a fashion similar to French today. By teaching English around second grade, young Moroccans would be exposed to the language early and consistently to make it a dominant, although unofficial, second language.
Moroccans who stress the need to embrace English in schools argue that it is more useful than French in today’s world. English is spoken in more countries, used by most international businesses, and is the predominant language of publications within the hard sciences.
Although most high schools teach in Arabic while preliminary university courses teach in French, most Moroccan universities teach higher level graduate courses in English to widen their students’ access to the globe.
Teaching English to Moroccans as their second formal language would increase Moroccan youths’ employability in the professional world and lead to increased international opportunities.
“When you learn English, you have more opportunities to study or get jobs all over the world,” says Rabat native Kenza El-Korchi who now studies and advises student projects in Worcester, Massachusetts. However, English is most commonly offered by wealthy or private schools in Morocco or in language centers located only in large cities.
Embracing English in all public and private schools would both unify the school system in Morocco as well as extend the privileges of English academic and professional opportunities to the entire population.
Only the self-motivated learn English
Although English is what Moroccan American university student Anass Harmal calls “trendy” or “cool” among youth in Morocco, there is no uniformity in the ways it is taught and the abilities of those who speak it.
Testimonies from multiple of Harmal’s peers indicated that their schooling in Morocco is not what helped them learn the language well. Progress learning English in school was often stunted by teachers and administrators resetting the curriculum for new students or focusing only on basic linguistic skills.
“I actually got good at English by watching movies and forcing myself to practice,” says university student Hicham El-Ferouali. Moroccans must be personally motivated to properly learn English. Establishing English in all Moroccan schools would eliminate this condition.
On the other side of the debate are Moroccans who strongly identify with the French cultural influence of the 20th-century protectorate. Although the new Moroccan Constitution (2011) officially recognizes only Arabic and Amazigh as the national languages, more than one-third of Moroccans regularly speak French, often better than Arabic.
Those who argue in favor of French do not wish to replace Arabic as the country’s first language. Instead, they aim to maintain the Francophone aspects of their national identity as well as teach the sciences in French throughout all schools.
Many debate that English should be learned for the sake of a more universal understanding of the hard sciences, but many informational publications are written in French as well.
Still, there are instances when speaking French in Morocco is socially inappropriate. For example, in northern cities like Tangier, Spanish is often spoken in addition to Arabic and Darija, and French speakers are viewed as visitors or strangers.
In many Moroccan medinas (old cities) where there is a concentration of Amazigh speakers, those who speak French may be considered arrogant or privileged.
What about non-European languages?
Further complicating the Moroccan language debate, some prefer that Amazigh or Darija should be taught in schools as the nation’s second language or that Morocco should focus primarily on classical Arabic. Those who urge the importance of these languages sense a national or cultural neglect of Morocco’s fundamental identity if the educational focus is on European languages.
Amazigh is indigenous to the country and was spoken before Arabic or French influences reached North Africa. Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, the most important religious text to most Moroccans.
Although classical Arabic is taught to young students, Darija has affected the public’s overall grasp of the classical rules of the ancient language. This problem is also true for the linguistic technicalities of classical French. Today, these formal and traditional languages are most often used in official documents and in paperwork.
Some Moroccans fear the widespread adoption of English will make what little of classical Arabic is still used fade even more and compromise Morocco’s identity.
Those who argue for teaching Darija or Amazigh in schools hope to differentiate Morocco from the world’s other Arabic-speaking countries as they preserve and solidify their unique national and cultural identity.
The languages Moroccan children are taught to speak depends on if they attend a public or private school—French, Spanish or English—or if they are handed down Amazigh by their family.
The nation exists in a dialogue of persons who speak any combination of two, three, or four languages. The strength of each of the languages advances Morocco’s diversity to new generations, but whether English or French contributes to prosperity is still up for debate.
Whichever conclusion may be accepted by the Moroccan government in the future, Moroccan educational reform is on the horizon.