The Berber language: officially recognized, unofficially marginalized?

Ten years after Tamazight – the language of the Amazigh, the country’s Berber population – began to be taught in schools here, and four years after it was constitutionally recognized as an official language, it is still unclear how it will be integrated into education.

The recognition of Tamazight has been very significant, a redefinition of Moroccan identity, explains Paul Silverstein, an anthropologist at Reed College who has studied the question.

Tamazight is the standardized version of the Amazigh languages. An estimated 25-30 million speakers of Tamazight and other Berber dialects are spread across North African countries, from the Atlantic Ocean to Egypt. (See the related story “In Algeria, the Berber language cannot gain a foothold in education.”)

In Morocco, a multitude of questions surround the place of the Berber language in schools: “What language is taught?” For who? What purpose? Is it purely a gesture? Silverstein asks.

Amazigh languages ​​(there are three main regional variants) are spoken by around 35 to 40 percent of the Moroccan population. But the Maghreb political discourse, whether nationalist or Islamist, has long been hostile to the Amazigh language, perceived as a threat to national cohesion. For decades, giving children Amazigh names was prohibited in Morocco. Failure to recognize the language spoken in the poor rural interior of the country was an effective means of discrimination which prevented Berbers from participating politically, socially and economically in Moroccan society.

In 1994, King Hassan II spoke out in favor of teaching Tamazight in schools, partly because of greater political openness and partly in response to pressure from Amazigh rights activists. In 2003, his son, who became King Mohamed VI, put the initiative into practice. In the new constitution he helped create in 2011, Tamazight was recognized as one of Morocco’s official languages. Tamazight writing now adorns the facades of most public buildings.

But “there is not yet a real linguistic policy”, notes Abdeslem Khalafi, researcher at the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM). “There is hesitation. Mentalities are not ready to integrate Tamazight and give it a chance. There is a change in speech, but not yet in practice.

The king created the institute in 2003, and its researchers developed a standardized written alphabet for a language that has many dialects and has been passed down orally for millennia. Khalafi worked on the development of the new alphabet and new textbooks to teach the language. The creation of a new alphabet was controversial in itself. Tamazight has historically been written more often in Arabic or the Roman alphabet. Tamazight is now only taught to around 12% of Moroccan students. Because of this, thousands of children whose mother tongue is Tamazight do not go to school, he says.

Khalafi and his colleagues at the Royal Institute believe that students should start their education in their native language – the Moroccan dialect of Arabic or whatever Amazigh dialect they speak – and then learn the standardized version. They claim six hours a week of Tamazight throughout primary and secondary education.

A Berber girl in Morocco (credit: Justin Clemens, Flickr)

Those who oppose adding Tamazight to the curriculum argue that it blurs an already complicated linguistic landscape and that students are better served by learning languages ​​that can benefit them in the global economy.

“It is not the language of instruction which is an obstacle for the pupils, answers Khalafi, but the [poor] teacher training. Integrating Tamazight is a gain even for other languages ​​”, he argues, because studies have shown that” a child who is welcomed at school in his mother tongue learns other languages ​​more easily “.

Five thousand Tamazight teachers trained at the Royal Institute are in the field today. Fatima Ibrahimi, who teaches Tamazight in a school in the capital Rabat, is one of them. Ibrahimi was trained as an Arabic teacher, but as a native speaker of Tamazight she volunteered to retrain to teach the language.

Arabic, French and other foreign languages ​​can be openings to the region and the rest of the world and bring professional advantages, says the teacher. But teaching these languages ​​alone is a “materialistic way of thinking,” she says. She thinks Moroccans should learn Tamazight because it is part of their heritage. Pointing to an Arabic-speaking friend who sat down with her in an interview, Ibrahimi said: “We are both Moroccans. Why is her language taught at school and not mine?

For many Tamazight speakers, teaching their language is a matter of social justice. His mother and grandmother spoke only Tamazight, says Khalafi. “It was their only opening to the world. All their lives they could not watch television, listen to the radio or make themselves understood if they went to the hospital. Today there are media in the Amazigh language. But courts, hospitals and other parts of the public administration still operate exclusively in Arabic.

When Khalafi was a university student, he had to argue with his advisor to be allowed to research Amazigh folk tales. University departments of Amazigh language and culture exist in the universities of Fez, Oujda, Rabat and Agadir, each with several thousand graduates.

Abdellah Bounfour is a researcher at the Berber Research Center, which is part of the historic National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations (National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations) in Paris. The center is the oldest and one of the very few to focus on Berber culture, linguistics and language; it cooperates with IRCAM and the programs of Moroccan universities.

Bounfour suggests that it would have been better to focus on introducing Tamazight at university level first. The introduction of Tamazight has largely failed, he wrote in an email, due to general issues related to Morocco’s underachieving education, poor teacher training and the creation of a standardized Tamazight which does not correspond to any spoken language. “Teaching a language is a political decision, not an educational one,” explains Bounfour.

One of Bounfour’s colleagues, Salem Chaker, wrote that “the Berber language is of undeniable scientific interest. It constitutes a real “laboratory situation”: a “stateless” language, marginalized for two thousand years, in close and permanent contact with other languages, extremely rich in dialect but also homogeneous over an immense geographical area, presenting many originalities. . “

The decision to include Tamazight in the curriculum is symbolically important, says Silverstein, because “a recognition that being Berber is not something you should hide”. But “there is a gap between the symbolic value of Tamazight and the pragmatic way in which Tamazight will actually be, functionally important to people,” he says. Even Amazigh activists and intellectuals generally do not work and write in the language. According to the Royal Institute, only 250 books have been written in Tamazight.

Silverstein doubts the new education policy will stem the continuing decline of Tamazight speakers. The language rivals English, French and Arabic, and when young people think about what they will need in the future, Tamazight often takes second place, he says.

Berber identity is more recognized than ever in the country’s history, but this recognition is unlikely to stem the decline of the language.

About Wesley V. Finley

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