SIT journalism student chronicles Morocco’s ‘language confusion’ between Arabic and French

April 3rd, 2020   |   Africa, SIT Study Abroad

(The article below, originally published in March in Morocco's Al-Fanar, was written by Rachel Berets, an SIT Morocco: Field Studies in Journalism and New Media student, as part of her SIT independent study project.)

Rachel Berets is a junior English major and writing tutor at Wellesley College.

RABAT — For three years as a young public-school teacher in Morocco, Abdelghani Erraki taught physics and chemistry in French without a hitch.

But in 1983, following a wave of Arab nationalism, the Moroccan government decided to change the language of instruction in science, math, and technical classes from French to Arabic.

Erraki was given two weeks of training from the Ministry of Education and was expected to begin teaching completely in Arabic at the start of the school year.

This year Erraki, is having a sense of deja vu: The Moroccan government is telling teachers to switch back to French. And this time, instead of just two weeks of training, teachers will get none.

“Changing from French to Arabic and then from Arabic to French has had a negative impact on the quality of education,” said Erraki, who now serves as the head of the teacher’s union branch of the Democratic Confederation of Labor. He blames politicians who flip-flopped to please voters for the instability and ineffectiveness of Moroccan education.

“Improvisation in government has been the reason that we haven’t gotten any results,” said Erraki. “There hasn’t been a plan.”

The latest language change from Arabic to French will also ultimately affect universities even though university students are already largely studying in French. The law passed last year changed the language of instruction in science, math, and technical classes from Arabic to French partly to combat dropout rates in public universities and to increase in-country scientific research.

Language debate’s long history in Morocco

Experts and politicians have debated the language of instruction in public schools since Morocco gained independence from France in 1956. Following independence, Moroccan nationalists wanted to eliminate French and elevate Arabic to reclaim a sense of national identity. Their primary goal was Arabization, expanding the influence of the Arab language and culture, which they started in 1962.

By the late 1960s, teachers in primary school taught fully in Arabic, but science, math, and technical classes in middle and high school remained in French for the next 20 years. In 1983, the government decided to change the language of instruction in science and math classes to Arabic to fully Arabize the system.

After the implementation of this change, which wasn’t completed until the 1990’s, all students in sixth grade and above were being taught in Arabic in all classes. However, science and technical classes in university remained in French, causing problems for students who had studied in Arabic their entire lives.

Critics say the Moroccan government enacted the latest law operating under the incorrect assumption that all teachers are already capable of teaching in French and that all students are ready to learn in French.

Five years of language disruption?

Mohammad Chtatou, a former professor of education at Mohammed V University in Rabat, predicts that there will be at least a five-year period of disruption as students and teachers adjust to French in the classroom. But he supports the change nonetheless, believing it will help more young people find jobs. “There is always a five-year gap whichever way you go. The five years is nothing compared to the results in the end,” said Chtatou.

The new law is meant to help the careers of students like Fatiha Ait Dada, an 18-year-old from Sale, who studied in Arabic all throughout high school and now studies physics in French at Mohammed V University in Rabat. But so far, she says, she finds the transition difficult.

In high school, “Everything was in Arabic, the teachers were explaining in Arabic … There were some symbols in French, but we knew them,” she said. Now, she watches videos in Arabic at home to explain the concepts she is learning in class in French.

She takes one French class at Mohammed V University, but adds, “They don’t really teach you how to speak French. They expect you to know French.”

“The government thinks that all teachers are competent in French,” said Erraki. But in reality, some teachers “teach in Darija [colloquial Arabic in North Africa] and use technical words in French.”

According to Erraki, if a teacher is unable to or refuses to teach in French, they will be reported to the disciplinary review board. They wouldn’t lose their jobs, but they could be suspended without pay.

A failure to communicate

Even teachers who do speak French well could still have trouble communicating in the classroom. Najwa Akki, a teacher of life sciences at Almajd High School in Agadir, said, “For teachers, there isn’t a problem. I was studying in French, I got my masters last year. The problem is the students. The teachers ask a question in French and the students don’t understand.”

She also adds that, “If a student has a problem with the French language, he can’t explain himself or ask questions of the teacher.”

Akki says that some of her students would rather continue learning in Arabic while some of them support the change to French.

Erraki believes that the solution lies not in scientific education but in French education, starting earlier and adding more hours.

“Students need to study French year by year, for the adaptation of students and teachers,” said Erraki.

Ait Dada felt similarly. “We didn’t care much about French growing up,” said Ait Dada. “There is no guidance or someone to emphasize the importance of French to us. People don’t know how important French is until they are faced with reality.”

Rachel Berets researched education in Morocco through SIT's Morocco: Field Studies in Journalism and New Media program. (Hassan Harrat of Morocco’s Connect Institute also contributed to reporting.)