Cane Toads and Boiled Eggs

I spent a day recently at an interesting Fulbright Alumni Conference about language. This time it was about the future of the English language in Morocco. I sometimes secretly think of English as an alarmingly successful invasive species, like the Cane Toad or the Nile Perch, but that definitely wasn’t the tone of the day’s debates, which were sober and positive. Like the Cane Toad and the Nile Perch I have little doubt, though, that English will prosper much faster than anyone really yet understands. I am not sure that this is entirely a good thing, but it is so.

But through the interesting discussions emerged again, as always, the ‘language debate,’ the endless argument about which language Moroccan children should be taught to read in. As always, passions boiled happily away over coffee, as they did in the hall. As one Moroccan colleague remarked, “Language, unfortunately, is a subject on which everybody feels the right to have an opinion,” and how they do love to argue about it. But it is a very odd debate really. We hear endlessly reiterated polemics about national identity, shared culture, the unquestionable centrality of Arabic, the perfection of Arabic as a medium of expression, the inseparability of Arabic from Islam and so on. What we almost never seem to hear is a statement that I’d summarize like this:

Morocco is a country 44% of whose people are illiterate, judged against the very low threshold set by the World Bank for measuring literacy. The reality is much higher. That figure is lower amongst the young than the old, lower amongst townspeople than country, and lower amongst males than amongst females – but nonetheless the fact is inescapable, that Moroccans do not read. There is no significant cultural capital accumulation going on, because reading and writing in any other than the most minimal sense are the skills of a small minority. The education system is not building a properly literate society, and this is surely – among several other important contributory causes – because of the Arabic/darija diglossia that is a fundamental feature of Moroccan society.

Given this circumstance it seems bizarrely self-indulgent for the literate to argue about national identity. I have recently seen a figure suggesting that no more that 15% of Moroccans master fus7a. In what sense then is this a national language? For many Moroccans it is an ill-learned foreign tongue at best: an indecipherable code, at worst. Spoken (and you’ll forgive my quoting Fouad Laroui again) only by Brazilian soap-actors, senior religious officials and some politicians. This debate is reminiscent of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: endlessly repeated, furious arguments between the Big-Endians of Blefuscu and the Little-Endians of Lilliput about the right end at which to crack the shell of a boiled egg. The question should – I would have thought – be simply this: which is the language which, if used for initial literacy education, produces the best results in increasing levels of literacy dramatically. It doesn’t really matter very much what the answer is as long as it is the answer to that question, and is backed by evidence. Literacy is all.

I was delighted to read an article in L’Economiste last week by a businessman whose name I didn’t recognize, but who spoke more sense on this subject than any six articles I have read before taken together. Ahmed Benabbès-Taarji spares no home truths: “Darija,” he writes (in French), “is used by all the inhabitants of Morocco from Tangier to Dakhla and from Oujda to Lagouira: fus7a by no one.” Of classical Arabic: “We teach our children a language which, as well as being foreign to them, is written without vowels. A language which one must study for many years in order to master … a language which [the young Moroccan] will never master sufficiently to make of it a vehicle for knowledge.”

To the suggestion that fus7a will cut Morocco off from Arab culture, he retorts: “But does [the person who maintains this] pay any attention to the fact that fus7a cuts 90% of our citizens off from any culture at all?” I could quote much more – it’s a small torrent of good sense laced with exasperation – but I urge you read it. I’ll end simply with the pithy box-comment that accompanies the article:

“Across the whole world, a child can decipher a prospectus, a newspaper, a letter, after as little as 4 or 5 years at school. Here in Morocco, after a school-education of 5 or 6 years, the child is essentially illiterate. Our fellow-citizens from the countryside have all … left school for various reasons after 5 or 6 years – alienation from the school, total incomprehension of fus7a etc – and are incapable of reading in any way, shape or form. This is in stark contrast with the Korean or Turkish peasant who can read the instructions for his tractor or his fertiliser.”

Golly, Mr Benabbès-Taarji gets it. I wish more people did. So much of the argument against darija is simply vanity. Talking the other night after dinner to David Graddol, the leading expert on World English (who gave a stunning presentation at the Fulbright conference), we were reflecting on this question. He pointed out that nothing that he had seen said about darija hadn’t been said about English in the late 16th century: to an educated man then it was obvious that anything complex, anything requiring accuracy, exact distinctions, or nuanced description could only be expressed in Latin. English was an entirely inadequate linguistic tool, just about fit for uncouth poetry (the best was still in Latin, naturally). It wasn’t, in expressive terms, a proper language really, and could hardly even be written down consistently.

“But you can’t translate Shakespeare into darija,” I read somewhere recently, as though this argument was the ultimate show-stopper. Well, I have a copy of St-Exupéry’s Little Prince on my desk in front of me, translated into darija, and I smell no sulphur on the pages. Abderrahim Youssi, the translator, has also translated Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. That apparently works quite well too.

English, despite the condescension of the Latinists, did just fine for Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Milton and the legions of poets, playwrights and even scientists who made of English one of the supplest, most adaptable and most expressive languages on earth. And Latin? Well, I think it’s still written occasionally in the Vatican.

Watch out for Cane Toads of all kinds.

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