French, Arabic, Moroccan, Amazigh?

The debate about the status of Arabic in Moroccan schools continues unabated. With many of the existing colloquial dialects jockeying for recognition, Morocco faces a tough task when it comes to offering effective, balanced linguistic education for all. By Ali Anouzla

By Ali Anouzla

The incorporation of words and expressions from colloquial Moroccan into textbooks for primary schools, which coincided with the beginning of the new academic year, has broadened the debate about the paradoxes which Moroccans face between the languages they learn at home and those they learn at school. Indeed, the debate about the patois of everyday usage and the languages of the government administration and other official bodies has always been there.

Moroccans are taught in Modern Standard Arabic or French – and sometimes in English or Spanish – whilst at home and in the street they speak Moroccan or Amazigh dialects. Whenever they deal with government, they are obliged to use French and when they receive communications from an official institution or official media they are written in Modern Standard Arabic.

This linguistic schizophrenia is mirrored in the general state of education in Morocco, which has declined steadily in recent years, despite numerous unsuccessful attempts at reform. Instead of dealing with the crisis, which is rooted in the lack of real political will to make education a ladder for social advance, some have chosen to direct their criticism at the Arabic language and to blame its teaching for the failure of Moroccan schools. For such people, the recourse to local dialects is the magic formula that can solve Morocco’s chronic education problems.

Moroccan vernacular is the mother tongue

Languages in Morocco (graphic: Tangier Taxi)
Moroccoʹs linguistic quandary: "relying on colloquial Moroccan to save education from bankruptcy will only add to the deepening crisis, because it canʹt supply what it doesnʹt have," writes Anouzla. "After all, the Moroccan dialect is not a language and it does not have a system of grammar"

Those who defend the inclusion or use of the vernacular as an alternative to Modern Standard Arabic in early learning and teaching argue that it is the mother tongue of the majority of Moroccan children.

Moreover, not only is education in oneʹs mother tongue a right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, initial instruction in it enables quicker uptake and better understanding.

Those who object to the incorporation of words and expressions from the local dialect in their childrenʹs curricula see the decision as an attempt to exclude Modern Standard Arabic. They argue that it will lower an already low standard of education.

In their view, it will also affect the future career prospects of Moroccan children, limiting them to communicating in a dialect that does not extend beyond the borders of Morocco and remains unknown outside local phrasebooks and oral sources.

The debate between opponents and supporters of this resolution has created a sharp division between those who defend Arabic as a cradle of values, history, civilization and identity, and those in favour of the Moroccan dialect.

The latter side comprises two camps: one is motivated by a desire to preserve the Moroccan vernacular, while the other in its defence of the vernacular masks a deeper wish to see the adoption of French.

This encompasses all that French represents in terms of values and lifestyle, as well as what it embodies in Moroccan society in terms of status and privilege at the expense of those who canʹt speak the language of Moliere.

Ten observations central to the debate

Putting these divisions to one side, there are several necessary observations in order to understand whatʹs behind the decision to integrate the dialect into the curricula, including its timing, its implications and its likely objectives, both latent and unspoken.

First, the decision was neither discussed in parliament, ratified at a ministerial meeting headed by the king, nor approved by the cabinet. On the contrary, the prime minister lifted the responsibility off their shoulders. He merely asked the minister of education to present his explanations to the public, promising to review the curricula with a view to confirming that vernacular terms and words had indeed been incorporated into it. Much to everyoneʹs surprise and without their involvement, the decision was not even put out for public debate. No specialists were consulted; rather, the decision was kept under wraps until the last minute!

Second, the Moroccan constitution states that the official language is Modern Standard Arabic and that Amazigh (Berber) is a national language. There is no mention of the vernacular. But the reality is rather different, because both Arabic and Amazigh (and Moroccan dialect, for that matter) are actually in retreat from the onslaught of French, which dominates in finance, business, government administration and the media.

Third, the current debate has been provoked by the de facto decree, which focusses only on the linguistic and paedagogical aspects, while omitting the most important aspects, namely the political and ideological rationale behind it. This omission can hardly be unintentional.

Fourth, the alignment of those who want Modern Standard Arabic and those who defend the Moroccan dialect is nothing but a misplaced attempt to deflect attention away from and to mask the vital discussion about the political, intellectual and ideological background to the move. After all, the Arabic language and Moroccan dialect have existed side by side for centuries. Furthermore, the vernacular draws most of its vocabulary from Arabic, and both know what itʹs like to be marginalised by French.

Fifth, relying on colloquial Moroccan to save education from bankruptcy will only add to the deepening crisis, because it canʹt supply what it doesnʹt have. After all, the Moroccan dialect is not a language and it does not have a system of grammar. Rather, it is a mix of words borrowed from a bunch of languages which Moroccans speak or with which they have dealings. Apart from the fact that it is an evolving dialect which regularly changes its idioms and expressions, it is not a unified lingo across the country, but a compilation of different dialects that vary from region to region.Sixth, Moroccan dialect is not a new thing in education. It is already present alongside Modern Standard Arabic, French and other languages, when it is used in explanation or discussion, and when a lingua franca is used in classrooms, schools, institutes and universities.                                                                                                             

Seventh, those who criticise the shortcomings of Modern Standard Arabic and who characterise it as being backward, over-complicated and not keeping up with the times are themselves the most vehement defenders of preserving French, even more than the French themselves are in their own country. Such people are preoccupied with purity of style, respect for the rules of grammar, morphology, pronunciation and inflexion.

Eighth, Arabic is regarded as fair game not only because of its strict rules of grammar, but also because of what it represents. Language is not an empty vessel; rather, it is a conveyor of thought, mirroring civilization, culture and identity. Those who take aim at it are implicitly criticising all it represents in terms of values, thought, culture, history and identity.

Ninth, when Morocco adopted the policy of Arabisation, soon after gaining its independence from France in the late 1950s, the stated goal was to restore the Arabic language and to counter the hegemony of French, which was seen as a colonial inheritance needing to be shunned. After many decades of Arabisation, it has become clear, however, that the status of French has grown. Indeed, it has remained the language of the elite, whilst Modern Standard Arabic has been pushed out to the rest of the society as a kind of class barrier. Hence the policy has entrenched the superiority of the Francophone elite over the rest, be they Arabic or Amazigh-speaking, or both.

Now that a section of political Islam has got its foot in the political door, the magic is likely to turn against the magician since the Islamistsʹ base is the Arabic language, Arabic thought and Arabic heritage. Arabic is the language in which they read and learn, and thus it has become – in the eyes of the Islamistsʹ opponents – a strategic target in order to halt the tide of political Islam in the longer term. Hence those who oppose Modern Standard Arabic have targeted school curricula to stop the Islamistsʹ use of a language that promotes their values, thinking and ideology.

Tenth, five years ago, the Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui said in defence of Arabic that the adoption of colloquial dialect would lead to Moroccans becoming marooned on an island. On top of that, it would lead to the abandonment of a centuries-old heritage shared by 300 million men and women, namely the Arabic language (or lughat aḍ-ḍād - the language of the ḍād – as early Arab grammarians used to call it). After all, Arabic has developed and adapted almost every day in order to compete with the worldʹs other languages.

On a social level, Laroui warned: "The result (of adopting the Moroccan dialect) will be cheap labour and intellectual illiteracy and inferiority, because it will only ever be a tool in the hands of a skilled operator!"

Ali Anouzla

© 2018

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton

Graphic reproduced with kind permission of TangierTaxi