A vote with the tongue for a less class-bound society

A year or so back there was a short news story in the Moroccan press about Indian labourers being hired to work in the Tangier Free Zone – because they spoke English. This small vignette echoes research commissioned by the British Council from Euromonitor, which found a wage premium of 16% or so for English-speakers in Morocco, and an awful dearth of them. There’s no doubt that fluency in the language enhances job prospects (a year ago I heard the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Daoudi, refer to English as “the language of employability” at an Economic and Social Council conference); but there’s something more going on, too.

I think it has to do with escaping from the rigidity of class, defined by language. Morocco is a country divided as surely by one as by the other. The pieties that we hear so often about the French language are class pieties. This is not to say that people of all classes don’t speak French, well or badly, but that a single sentence of spoken French is enough to identify for a Moroccan listener out of exactly which drawer of society a fellow-Moroccan comes. From the courtly French of the elderly élite, though the patrician French of the Lycéens de Mission, to the self-consciously imperfect French of the university student, and the macaronic muddle of the taxi-driver, you are identified, labelled and pigeon-holed when you open your mouth. Your mistakes are chalked up silently against you.

Abdelfattah Kilito writes, of the French language “Aussi, taraudé par un sentiment de culpabilité, dois-je sans cesse me surveiller, être constamment sur mes gardes. Les risques sont nombreux et une faute peut côuter cher ; à tout moment je peux faire un faux pas, et quelquefois il est difficile de se relever d’une chute.” The risks are many and one mistake could cost me dear; at any moment I might make a mistake, and it is often difficult to recover from such a fall. This is quite a tough linguistic environment in which to grow up (Kilito is writing of his childhood), the more so in that perfect French is the hallmark of the lycéen, the young man or woman from the elite destined for power and success. It can plausibly be argued, too, that the Arabisation of the educational system, idealistic in some ways, was in others at least as important a form of linguistic apartheid. This is symbolized by Azzedine Laraki, the Minister responsible for the (many would say disastrous) blitz-Arabization of Moroccan public schools in the mid-1980s, sending his own children to the francophone Lycée. In an interview with L’Economia, Mohamed Chafik puts it, harshly, like this – “a treason by a minority of the political class,” and draws a devastating analogy with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “One is tempted to believe,” he writes, “that they intended to create an impoverished Beta class of the masses, and a privileged Alpha class for themselves and their children.”

Oddly enough although Moroccans may feel very trapped in the perfect edifice of French, and similarly in Arabic (“On ne le parle pas; on a même moins d’occasions de le parler que le français; on pourrait aller jusqu’à avancer qu’en dehors de certaines circonstances, Il est interdit de l’utiliser, sous peine de ridicule.”), there is a way out of linguistic lobster-pots and – in the case of Arabic at least – seriously ineffective education. English is a very forgiving language – it absorbs mistakes in its benign plasticity. More important, it is not class-marked: the fact of speaking it does not (for the time being at least) say much about you except that you are ambitious and forward-looking. Nuances of accent do not betray you. Rather as Hindus trapped by India’s caste-system escape by conversion to Islam or Christianity where there is no caste, so I see Moroccans stepping adroitly into the classless linguistic universe that is international English. In this sense English is a political choice, a choice of the students who protested in February 2011 and have kept the arguments going on the internet, in a pot-pourri of languages, in which English is important. It is a quiet rejection of the status quo, a vote with the tongue for a less class-bound society.

And it is useful. I spent this morning at an academic conference, the presentation of the Arabic translation of a report on a project that the British Council managed for the EC, called, euphoniously, Language-Rich Europe: Trends in Policies and Practices for Multilingualism in Europe. It is a genuinely important document, and richly interesting in a slightly dry sort of a way – classifying and comparing the topography of language in every European country, where each is spoken, broadcast, allowed, sanctioned, promoted. As its editor, Guus Extra, told the conference, its translation into Arabic (and Turkish) is vital because Arabic and Turkish are Europe’s two most important languages of immigration. Alas we had only one copy in Arabic – the 150 that were sent from Holland are detained in Customs at Casablanca, where an enormous amount of money is being demanded in costs, or fines, or demurrage or something – and this single copy was presented to the Minister of Higher Education. I had to make do with an English version.

But this was just fine, and would perhaps have been fine for Dr Daoudi too. As he told the conference, he was keen to come and open proceedings because it gave him a chance to speak about the importance of English, which he did with force and elegance, albeit in French. English as the language of employment, mobility, ambition, research – the language of the future. He told the conference that universities in the Gulf are crying out for Moroccan teachers: or would be, if those teachers only spoke English. His message was very clear indeed: Morocco must learn English.

Dr Daoudi’s words had me reflecting on a number of recent events. Two weeks ago I signed an agreement to set up an English language teaching and evaluation centre at Ibn Zohr University in Agadir, Morocco’s second largest university, through which, in partnership with the university and its far-sighted president, we shall extend the benefits of English to a great many non-English majors. Then last week I was in Brussels, and heard the Dean of the Faculty of Letters at one of Morocco’s greatest universities describe the faculty, in its present form, as “a machine for manufacturing unemployment,” and emphasize that fluency in English and its generalisation, is the only way out.

And finally, back from Brussels, I got round to viewing a film clip from the BBC sent me some time ago by a colleague. It is about the growing attraction of English here in Morocco. “French is considered a language of the élite,” says the Moroccan proprietor of a small English school. On the other hand, he goes on, “English is a language for everyone – from every social background.” The film looks at growing demand across Morocco for English, and its role in employability; and at the increasing number of international firms which use English as their language of business and management. The school-proprietor concludes that “French has had its day,” which may be a premature call, but expressed by a Moroccan with his finger on the pulse of language-learning, is very interesting.

Off your vélo and on yer bike.

2 thoughts on “A vote with the tongue for a less class-bound society

  1. Bueno, en lo que se toca al norte de Marruecos, no estoy nada convencida que el caso es perdido ya para el otro idioma que uno puede eligir para escaparse de las trampas sociales que presentan el frances o el arabe. Si yo fuera tangerina, por ejemplo (o por casualidad), eligiria el castellano sobre el inglés si estuviera buscando una parcela de las inversiones españoles que ya son mayores a las de los franceses; la ventaja es que el castellano popular es aún mas popular que su equivalente inglés, y suena bien en noches de fiesta. Pero ¿yo qué sé? Soy inglesa…..

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