Bavures and Shibboleths – language in Morocco

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I am rather preoccupied with the question of language. Both the fus7adarija dimension, and the whole question of foreign languages. (And of course the matter of Tamazight.) To dispense with the first, I have little doubt that the very high levels of illiteracy (a recent op-ed in by Abderrahmane Lahlou L’Economiste quotes Ministry of Education figures for illiteracy as high as 76% at primary grade 4) are not going to be significantly reduced until the diglossia on which they rest is resolved.  This means some version of the Zakoura Foundation’s proposal to make darija the language of instruction at least in early primary, before converting to fus7a when pupils are ready. (Zakoura describes this process as building a passerelle, or footbridge, from the mother tongue to Arabic.) Champions of classical Arabic rest their arguments on Arab or Islamic solidarity, the price of which is widespread illiteracy, and Zakoura’s recommendations have been deliberately misrepresented by many who should know better.

There is no visible evidence that Arabic is well enough taught in Moroccan schools for there to be any hope of its prospering as the universal language of literacy. It is a discussion that needs to be conducted on evidence, but the scenes of emotional and histrionic disorder that break out in parliament whenever it arises suggest that the day of evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived. Parliament itself is not wholly qualified to handle the evidence: Houda Filali-Ansary wrote in La Vie Eco of the last parliament, si l’on trouve toujours des élus ayant le niveau d’études primaire, ils sont de moins en moins nombreux, tout comme l’élu totalement analphabète est une espèce en voie de disparition. Certes, dans un certain nombre de cas, il s’agit de députés d’un certain âge. In other words, a certain number of older MPs can’t read themselves, and others have only primary education. Well, it’s generally the old fellows waving their order papers and shouting.

As for foreign languages, which the King emphasized so strongly in his August 2013 education speech, French is becoming the language of an old elite. Demand for English is growing very fast, and that for French is not. A senior fonctionnaire said to me a couple of years ago “La francophonie, c’est une prison,” the language of a colonial and post-colonial elite which is of less and less currency in the world of ideas and research, let alone film, music and youth culture. Certainly there is much that is to be treasured in francophone Moroccan literature, and it will always be accessible, but English seems to be becoming the foreign language of choice for the younger generation. Willy-nilly.

As I said in response to a recent argument on Twitter on this subject, we may not like it – but complaining about it is a bit like complaining about the weather. I tweeted a link to an essay I wrote last year, towards the end of my four years in Morocco, called Bavures and Shibboleths: The Changing Ecology of Culture and Language in Morocco which I think adds something to the discussion, and I have added it to the masthead of this blog (or you can find it here).


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