Having your gateau and eating it

“No translation,” a senior Moroccan higher education official said to me a few weeks ago, as we talked about postdoctoral research seminars; “Moroccans have got to learn to speak English if they want to join the international world of research.” And almost any other corner of today’s world, too. Whether we like it or not (and there are days when I like it not at all), English is taking the place of many other languages in the international market place by virtue of its simple currency in IT, labour mobility, social media, telecommunications, scientific research and even trans-regional Islam). It is easy to miss this in Morocco where French still seems to hold sway, still by a large margin the most spoken of second languages, but the same thing is happening here too. The French language, it seems to me, is a little like Wile E. Coyote in Roadrunner, the character who repeatedly runs over the edge of the cliff and keeps running, in mid-air – until he looks down.

Research commissioned by the British Council from Euromonitor last year suggests a 12% wage premium for English-speakers in Morocco. The Minister of Higher Education told the Economic and Social Council that in his view English is the key to solving graduate unemployment: this is a view we share with careful optimism, and are working with several universities on English for Employment programmes. But what I find very striking is that the impetus comes from Moroccan institutions and individuals rather than from us.

I imagine that this worries the champions of the French language, and is presumably one of the factors lying behind the massive investment France is making in education in Morocco. Last December the French Minister of Education announced an investment in Morocco of 50,000,000 euros in the establishment of Masters’ courses, PhDs and so forth in teaching French as a foreign language. (Go back and read that sentence again, and think about it.) More recently President Hollande announced the establishment various institutions, including four branches of Grandes Ecoles,  of INSA, and ENA, a faculty of medicine at Agadir, a school of Architecture at RIU and a massive investment in skills training.

Taken all together, this is a serious attempt to maintain French as the preferred language (and France as the preferred source) of Higher Education in Morocco of which, as M Fries, the French Ambassador, remarked, the purpose is to consolidate France’s position as partner of reference and source of inspiration for Morocco. So too is the recent appointment of a very distinguished Moroccan university president to head the university section of la Francophonie. There can be no doubt that, apart from its tangible importance to France, a francophone Morocco is of huge symbolic importance to France’s self-image.

All of which sent me back to an article in Le Monde a few weeks ago[i]. Its headline speaks volumes: Le développement des cours en Anglais déchire le monde académique. If the example of their hexagonal parents is anything to go by, the new Moroccan branches of France’s Grande Ecoles will teach at least a quarter of their courses in English – and I suspect that proportion will grow quite fast. The article in Le Monde is about a terrific row splitting French academia over the use of English in French universities, where the battle-lines are clearly drawn. In the red corner is the Minister, Geneviève Fioraso, whose recent universities law allows the use of English as a medium of instruction in certain circumstances – circumstances which look as though they will prove quite elastic. She is supported by a group of French Nobel laureates and other distinguished scientists writing to Le Monde on May 8th, who declare that the whole world’s scientists use English to communicate, and see the new law as promoting the insertion of France into the world, and reinforcing its attractiveness. Mme Fioraso herself notes that France receives a mere 3,000 Indian students a year, commenting that (in this matter) nous sommes ridicules. Well, I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but it is a matter for serious reflection.

This is genuinely a very difficult argument, and neither side is ridiculous. But the blue corner comes quite close to being so, lamenting that the new law will marginalise the French language, and provides a pulsion d’autodestruction. Even Axel Kahn, while defending the exclusive retention of French for undergraduate degrees insists that on the other hand, for masters’ and doctors’ degrees one must be able to use the language of international communication. This seems more like surrendering one trench at a time than thinking clearly about language and education.

The philosopher Michel Serre fears that teaching in English will turn us, through the disappearance of the specialized languages that form part of French, into a colonised country whose language is incapable of expressing everything. Strong stuff. (The imp in me wonders quite what France thinks it did to Arabic in the 44 years of the Moroccan Protectorate and after: it would be all too easy, if a little mischievous, to rephrase that last sentence thus: teaching in French turned Morocco, through the pre-emption of the specialized languages that would have come to form part of Arabic, into a colonised country whose language is incapable of expressing everything.)

I can’t be indifferent to the progress made by the English language and the education system that rides with it: it is my vocation and my profession to promote them both. But I watch the changing linguistic landscape of Morocco with what is sometimes a nervous fascination. Language in this amazing country is an extraordinarily delicate ecosystem, and in particular the place of French in defining and hedging about the country’s elite is crucial. Moha U’Hrou Hajar pointed out in the statistical research for his book on Moroccan education that since independence a mere 200 Moroccan families have provided almost 40% of graduates from the Lycées de Mission; Gilbert Grandguillaume put it bluntly: The Istaqlal never ceased to champion Arabisation, a position that was frequently demagogic, since the Istiqlal elite, following the example of their leader, Allel el Fassi, put their own children in the establishments of the French cultural mission in Morocco.[ii] In the long run, and perhaps even in the medium term, the uncritical encouragement of an élite language that is almost designed to repel boarders seems a bizarre pulsion d’autodestruction in itself.

And it’s not just French. I read this morning in the Sunday Telegraph a report of an interview with Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s Minister of Labour, about employability. English must be well known as a second language, she says, because the labour market is global, and whoever wants an enduring career must have facility in English. We’re not a closed national economy – our customers are global.

She gets it: and Morocco is so closely linked to Europe that the same applies in trumps.

[i] Le développement des cours en Anglais déchire le monde académique: le projet de la ministre de l’enseignement supérieur révolte les défenseurs de la langue française, Benoît Floc’h, Le Monde, 10 May 2013.

[ii] Moha U’Hrou Hajar, La mission Française au Maroc vs. La mission de l’école Marocaine, (?) Errachidia, 2008

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