Morocco/ 4.2 Specific policy issues and recent debates  

4.2.5 Language issues and policies

The new constitution (passed at the beginning of July, 2011) prioritised the subject of language. The fifth article provides—for the first time in the history of Morocco—for important issues including: the constitutionality of the Amazigh language as a shared resource for all Moroccans, and work on a regulatory law that specifies the stages of implementing Amazigh’s official status, how to prioritise it in the field of education and in areas of public life so that it can function in the future as an official language.

In addition, it provides for the protection of dialects and cultural expressions used in Morocco, ensuring harmony between national cultural and linguistic policy, and teaching and mastering the most commonly spoken languages in the world as a means of communication, engagement, and interaction with the community of knowledge, and openness with different cultures and contemporary civilisation. The constitution also stipulates the creation of a constitutional authority named The National Council for Moroccan Languages and Culture, tasked with protecting and developing the Arabic and Amazigh languages, and different Moroccan cultural expressions, as a source of original heritage and contemporary innovation. It guarantees all concerned institutions in these fields. A regulatory law specifies its jurisdiction and structure.

During the French mandate, the majority of intellectuals in Morocco were native French speakers. Today, this description only applies to the French Missionary School students and a small number of private educational institutions—no more than 5% of Moroccans. The rest of Morocco falls into the following categories:

  • Illiterate citizens, who speak one of the Arabic dialects or the spoken Amazigh language
  • Literate citizens, who only speak standard Arabic
  • Literate citizens, who speak Arabic and a foreign language other than French or a local dialect
  • Literate citizens, speaking little French

Francophone authorities were the first to notice the decline of French in Morocco. As a result, French Institutes and Alliances had to change their educational policies from "French as a mother tongue" to “French as a foreign language”.

The former system concentrated on grammar, French literary subjects, history and culture, while the latter focused more on communication and conversation. It aimed to restore French as the language used in the street and at home, as it had been during the decades immediately after independence.

This led to Arabisation efforts all throughout Morocco, which caused a further decline of French in Morocco's public schools, especially after the majority of French teachers’ contracts were terminated. English language instruction increased as more schools refused to teach French.

Despite the situation on the ground, it is commonly believed abroad that French is prevalent in Morocco. Many believe Morocco to be the largest francophone country in the world after France. This image is accentuated by the prevalence of Moroccan scholars, writers and artists who work in French. Heavy coverage of Moroccan officials speaking French also helps maintain this image of Morocco.

Although French has lost much of its lustre in Morocco, it still enjoys great importance. French is still the language of higher education, banks, and entrepreneurial businesses. Many government authorities still communicate in French. A large number of economic enterprises and educational institutions based in Morocco use French exclusively. Therefore, mastering French in Morocco is essential for navigating public life.

On the other hand, demand for English in Morocco has steadily increased in recent years.

As for other national languages, there are various Amazigh dialects. In the last couple years, there has appeared a form of official recognition of these dialects before their constitutional recognition in 2011. This recognition has come through the establishment of the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture in 2001, the foundation of an Amazigh television channel, and a comparison of its status in official forums as a basic component of national identity.

Many Moroccans consider Amazigh their mother tongue. Although there are no accurate figures about the number of these people, they represent a significant portion of the population. Arabic is Morocco’s only official national language, which is reflected in Moroccan policies and cultural programs. This, however, does not prevent French from being used widely in Morocco's national programs, despite their limited number. Amazigh, on the other hand, is still at the early stages of its inclusion into official government programs.  Constitutionalising it would grant it greater breadth to answer larger questions pertaining to it.

Multilingualism has become one of the most contentious issues in Moroccan culture. Outwardly, the confrontation appears to be a linguistic one, but below the surface the issue is multi-faceted and deeply rooted in Moroccan national identity. It is associated with crucial questions like:

  • Who are Morocco's “original” inhabitants?
  • Do Moroccans have a single ethnicity?
  • Are the Amazigh Semitic, European, or African?
  • What was the Amazigh cultural value and contribution before the Arab-Islamic conquests?
  • Is Amazigh a single language or a collection of dialects?
  • Is it a written or only a spoken language?
  • Does recognition of Amazigh necessitate recognition of their right to rule the country or have a large share in the government?
  • What is Arabism, and is there an Arab homeland?
  • What is the relationship between Amazigh and Arabic in terms of language, culture and socio-cultural entity?

Arabic versus French:
This conflict is viewed as a remnant of French colonialism. The conflict is between “the national language” and “the colonialist language”. It is associated with national sovereignty, cultural heritage, and adopting a “national identity” as opposed to importing culture.

French versus English:
As in many parts of the world, Morocco is going through a conflict between Francophonic and Anglo-Saxon tendencies. Certain questions have recently been raised, such as:

  • Which is more important for world communication, French or English?
  • Does France itself communicate with the world (outside its colonies) in French, or English?
  • Is France in any way responsible for the flagging education system in Morocco? 

Chapter published: 05-05-2016