(MENAFN – Syndication Bureau) AFP Photo: Abdelhak Senna
The new school year will start 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 earlier this month, stirred emotion. Is it a surrender to the language of the former colonizer of Morocco, France? Or does it strengthen the status of Arabic, the official language of Morocco (the other is Amazigh, the Berber language)? The objective of the reforms is to better prepare the workforce for the job market, where French is often required, especially since around half of university students never finish their studies, often because of a lack of fluency in French. But given the history of the colonial period, when French was compulsory in schools and Arabic sidelined, it became a delicate subject.
The misfortune of Morocco’s words is not limited to itself. Countries in the Middle East have struggled with which language their children should learn. But by caring so much about linguistic survival, Morocco is not taking measures for linguistic renaissance. 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 the elites of the past.
Schools and universities in the Middle East use a mixture of English, Arabic and French as the language of instruction. In Egypt, it is mainly Arabic and English. In Lebanon, different universities use the three languages. The best university in the Middle East, according to this year’s Times Higher Education ranking, is King Abdulaziz University of Saudi Arabia, where the language of instruction is predominantly English, with some Arabic. Arabic speakers everywhere are worried that their children do not know their mother tongue well enough and that English continues to seep through television, film and music.
The question is, inevitably, political, given the history of foreign rule. Nationalist political parties like the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq have been explicitly part of their governments to ensure the primacy of Arabic, even going so far as to replace non-Arab scientific and technological terms with Arabic variants.
Arabic-speaking countries, nor for that matter the former colonies, are not the only ones to worry about the domination of foreign languages. The former colonial powers are too. In 2013, France witnessed street protests against a plan to allow the teaching of English 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. “Will we ever speak English in this French parliament?” thundered a politician. Yet the proposal was adopted.
For English speakers, linguistic nationalism, in France or in the Arab world, may seem outdated and too paternalistic. The language, surely, is evolving, and if English provides a better word for “e-mail” (e-mail in French, albareed al electroni in Arabic), so be it. After all, it also works the other way around: the English language has yet to provide a better alternative to Arabic al-kuhl or French omelette.
Such a laissez-faire attitude was born out of unchallenged domination. English is the lingua franca of the world (a term itself referring to a once 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 doesn’t work in a global market, where whoever has the best words wins. It is linked to identity, culture and even faith. Sometimes he needs a little 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 everyday life, Darija, a mixture of Arabic, Amazigh and European languages. This happened on a small scale last year, when Morocco introduced textbooks that contained a handful of Darija words instead of classical Arabic. This sparked an uproar on social media.
But this process is, on the whole, positive, making a stronger connection between the words children use at home and hear all around them, and those they interact with in education. This is especially important because Darija is already commonly used in popular music and TV shows (but not political shows). It already surrounds most Moroccans. Using it at school means accepting a current reality.
The second would be to use Darija in public places to discuss serious matters; politicians should take the lead here. That would be controversial, to be sure, but Moroccan politicians would only follow in the footsteps of Muslim preachers, for whom the use of colloquial language was once much more sensitive. Now, however, the discussion of religious matters in Arabic spoken by a new generation of preachers is accepted.
Reforming the Moroccan education system will not be easy. Neighboring Tunisia and Algeria are grappling with similar issues. Changing the language of instruction touches on questions of identity and history, but it is also a prosaic and pressing political question of how best to do it by the current generation of Moroccan students.
Stripped of its political and historical context, more direct answers emerge: if the government wants students to learn in Arabic, it must use the Arabic they live with. If he wants university students to study in French, he must prepare them before their arrival. As with learning a language, so with political questions: it is better to start from the first principles.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news channels. He has worked for news organizations such as The Guardian and the BBC, and has reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
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