Of Bald Men and Combs

There’s an interesting spat going on at the moment over language and education. Six weeks ago there was an education conference in Casablanca called Le Chemin de la Réussite. It was organized by the Zakoura Foundation, and had a fine line-up of speakers and participants. It was an excellent event, as I can clearly see from the report on the desk beside me (I was supposed to take part, but sadly, in the end, couldn’t). It takes a strong line on language, making very clear that the language question is vital to Morocco’s future:  by the 6th year of primary school only 6% of pupils have mastered Arabic, and only 1% French.  “The choice today,” says the report, “is not between our language and those of the rest of the world, but between isolation and opening up. And Morocco has made its choice: what remains is only coherent implementation.”

The most controversial proposal (and it is controversial not because there is much doubt about its correctness, but because it confronts a national shibboleth) is about Arabic. The report recommends that children be taught in their mother tongues, the Arabic or Berber colloquial dialects,  in pre-school and elementary; that darija be codified so as to link it coherently for teaching purposes with classical Arabic, by establishing ‘passerelles,’ or linking bridges; and that educational practice move smartly towards “a convergence between spoken and written Arabic.” This is achingly obvious: no one in Morocco speaks classical Arabic as a mother tongue (except, as Fouad Larbi wrily observes, for Brazilian soap stars). And learning to read in a second language is a high road to disaster.

The Zakoura Foundation report indicates a sensible way to address the cataclysmic illiteracy from which Morocco suffers.  This seems pretty uncontentious – it’s hard to doubt that Morocco’s dismal literacy levels are to do with teaching darija-speaking and Berber-speaking children to read in a language that is not their mother tongue.  Arabic is often badly taught, and the drop-out rate in the early years of public education is phenomenal, with girls much more badly affected even than boys. Morocco’s scores in the worldwide PIRLS test (2011) speak for themselves: out of 45 countries testing 4thgraders in literacy, Morocco comes 45th; of the 4 levels of literacy assigned, only 21% of 4th graders reach or pass the lowest (as against 95% for the international median).  Literacy is an absolute imperative, and classical Arabic doesn’t seem to cut the mustard in the practical literacy department: diglossia, as this double-language phenomenon is called, is the enemy of literacy, of development and of cultural capital accumulation.

But what seems obvious to Noureddine Ayouch and the majority of academic linguists is less obvious to politicians, and M Benkirane came out of his corner with gloves up this week: Le Maroc continuera d’enseigner l’éducation islamique à ses enfants et à les éduquer en arabe et ce jusqu’au jour du Jugement, said the head of government. He was only one of many. There is a good account of this strange argument, by Zuhair Mazouz on the Free Arabs website, which notes the reactions of parliamentarians on both sides of the house. “In a surprising show of unity,” he writes, “MPs from all sides of the political spectrum turned into conspiracy theorists and accused Ayouch and (Minister of Education, Rachid) Belmokhtar of attacking the cornerstone of Moroccan identity. Islamist MP Moqri Abouzayd went as far as describing the proposal as an “imperialist attempt to destroy Islam.” Across the ideological aisle, Socialist MP Rachida Benmassoud rendered the idea “historically and scientifically irrelevant.”

Clearly it’s not for me to comment on religious education, but if Morocco’s children are to be educated in Arabic until Doomsday, it seems probable that vast numbers of them will remain functionally illiterate until Doomsday.  This is a high price to pay, individually and nationally, for ideological correctness.

And literacy apart, the HoG’s remarks, as they touch on language, while undoubtedly expressing a laudable cosmic commitment, don’t much make sense down in our sublunary world of employment: of the unemployed graduates demonstrating outside Parliament, 80% are evidently (Driss Gerraoui in the Observateur du Maroc  #235) from only five disciplines: chemistry, physics, biology, Arabic Literature and Islamic Studies. So the elements of education that will be with us till Doomsday seem also to be serious chômage-generators at the graduate level.

It is therefore very sad to see the President of the Zakoura Foundation, Noureddine Ayouch, put on the defensive by doctrinaire knee-jerk reactions. He was obliged after the barrage of attacks against him to deny his supposed attack on Arabic: “This is in no way a question of attacking the Arabic language, which must retain a dominant rôle in education. Our official languages are Arabic and Tamazight. ” But of course he sees clearly that it is only by adapting, by seeking the convergence that the report describes, that Arabic will remain supple enough, and education-friendly enough, to retain this rôle. Paradoxically, it is the purists who will, over time, ensure that Arabic becomes less and less relevant to Morocco’s future, by making of it a dead language, like Latin.

The Zakoura report  is also very clear about employability: “Economic pragmatism,” it says, “must steer the choice of languages for better employability, better insertion into the world of work.” This means more, and much better, teaching of foreign languages. “Enlarge the offer to the international languages of the future’ – les langues internationales de l’avenir – “Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin etc,” and above all “For better insertion into the world of work, where English is predominant,  English must become the main language of scientific instruction,” and the disastrous changeover from teaching scientific subjects in Arabic at school to teaching them in French at university, must end.

Interestingly this echoes remarks made by Lahcen Daoudi, the Minister of Higher Education, last weekend: ““French is no longer the language of research…the language of the world today is English … the student who doesn’t speak English is illiterate,”  he told a group of telecoms engineers. And what’s more, as Mazouz puts it, “Fus’ha has no place in the job market.”

But this mustn’t make us English-speakers complacent. These remarks about Morocco and language relate to a different but related debate going on in Great Britain, and recently summed up in a very stimulating new report published by the British Council, on Great Britain’s own take on les langues internationales de l’avenir.  Britain of course has its own problems with language, notably a marked decline in the study of foreign languages caused by the insularism of speaking “the language of the world today.” Take-up rates of language degrees at British universities are in steep decline, and many departments of languages are shrinking or closing. The report analyses this decline and looks at the language requirements of international prosperity over the coming decades. Using a list of factors, chiefly but not exclusively economic, it ranks the ten languages that are likely to be most important to Britain’s prosperity if we can persuade Britons to learn them.

The report notes David Graddol’s warning that the competitive advantage of English is temporary, and will diminish – and that monolingual English-speakers face longer term exclusion from multilingual environments and markets. Multilingualism is the name of the future game – and it’s a game that Morocco is perhaps better placed to play than Great Britain. A 2012 survey found British schoolchildren to have the poorest foreign language skills of any country taking part. 75% of British adults can’t have even a basic conversation in any language other than English. And the authors’ conclusions are that language-learning is a strategic necessity for a prosperous future. (In case you were wondering, the ten most beneficial and important languages to learn are Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. In that order: which means that Arabic is the second most important world language for Britain’s future. What sort of Arabic? Ah … that’s another conversation.)

So it is very important indeed that Morocco too think hard about its language future: as many very thoughtful Moroccans like Noureddine Ayouch understand well, prosperity depends on getting this right. English is vital, but not just English, if Morocco is to achieve serious professional and labour mobility, a strong place in the international research economy, growing FDI and the exploitation of its extraordinarily advantageous geographical position on the very doorstep of Europe. The thing that really needs to be hauled aboard is a lesson that the British Council’s researchers know very well: second and third language choice may be to an extent aesthetic and cultural, but it needs primarily to be driven by economic criteria. These are hard-nosed and evidence-based. The polemics of the last week in Morocco suggest that – alas – Morocco is not ready to think in a hard-nosed, evidence-based way about language.  I hope I’m wrong, and that Ayouch is a harbinger of clearer thinking to come. If not, then Mazouz’s concluding paragraph (from which I’ve already quoted) holds true:

Moroccans’ relationship with languages is at the same time a cause and a consequence of the deep socio-economic inequalities plaguing the country. Classical Arabic, taught in school, is the language in which the regime addresses its subjects. Yet Fus’ha has no place in the job market. French and English do. As a result, the country’s political and financial elite (mostly loyal to the Fus’ha-speaking regime) makes sure to instruct its offspring in foreign languages. The social stratification in the country is also a linguistic one: Darija for the masses, French and English for the elite, and Fus’ha for the state apparatus. It is then easy to understand the fierce resistance of the political class to any attempts at officializing Darija: a citizenry confident in its identity is more difficult to govern.

But I hope that the Zakoura report’s much more upbeat comment is right: “The choice today is not between our language and those of the rest of the world, but between isolation and opening up. And Morocco has made its choice: what remains is only coherent implementation.”

The same goes for Great Britain.

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