Multilingual education in Morocco: Back to the future?
Language education in Morocco reflects a complex interplay between ethnic diversity/identities, political interests, and language ideologies and attitudes. Economic realities and development in Morocco’s particular context also play a significant role in shaping education policy broadly, and language policy specifically. Above all, any discussion of the status of language education policy in Morocco must be conducted against the backdrop of the country’s historical experience with languages during colonialism and until the present.
Postcolonial Language Policy
After independence in 1956, Morocco inherited an educational system in which science and mathematics were taught in the French language, while Standard Arabic was reserved primarily for religious and linguistic studies. Morocco’s first constitution (1962) recognized Standard Arabic as the official language of the country, and, soon after, Arabization language policy was implemented in Moroccan education by replacing French with Arabic as the primary medium of instruction. Arabization sought to make Standard Arabic a symbol of Morocco’s sovereignty and cultural identity and reverse French colonial linguistic and cultural hegemony. In short, Arabization was a selective reform caught between ideals and realities.
Arabization was designed, on the one hand, to unify Moroccans through a common language rooted in religious identity, and on the other hand, to cement unity, or at least solidarity, with the broader Arab world. Arab nationalists in Morocco perceived Arabization as a necessary process towards affirming Morocco’s status as an Arab nation. In the attempt to homogenize the entire nation under the banner of Arab nationalism, however, the languages of Morocco’s indigenous population—collectively called Amazigh—were not recognized as official languages. This attempt at amalgamation resulted in the inadvertent subtraction of Morocco’s cultural and linguistic diversity. Amazigh languages (namely, Tarifit, Tashelhit, and Tamazight) historically served a vital role across Morocco through oral literature, poetry, music, and daily interactions among their native communities. It is important to note that the Amazigh languages, after independence, had not yet formed a standard writing system and “had not established themselves as languages of scholarship (particularly religious scholarship) or administration” . This is, perhaps, at least one of the commonly cited reasons for its absence in early post-colonial language policy. As a result, Arabization served to elevate Arab cultural heritage above all others, thereby marginalizing Amazigh languages and cultures, and those of mixed heritage. Arabization, with its lofty goals, therefore became a missed opportunity for reflecting an inherently diverse nation. Post-colonial language policy struggled to reconcile tremendous needs and ideals. As a historical moment it presented a golden, yet missed, opportunity to promote an inclusive agenda recognizing both the Arab and Amazigh identities.
Arabization: obstacles, limitations, and implications
While the Arabization language policy has been perceived as a failure, the argument could be made that the policy never stood a chance. In many ways, it lacked what it needed to facilitate, grow, and sustain success. Weak learning outcomes and outdated, ineffective methods of teaching Arabic have led to angst about the language itself rather than the policies, curricula, pedagogies, and structures through and within which Arabic is taught.
Arabization of school curricula faced immeasurable challenges in realizing its goals, due in large part to political and systemic factors. For instance, Arabization was torn between competing interests of the country’s political protagonists. Al-Istiqlal, a conservative political party that played a major role in Morocco’s independence, pushed for a completely Arabized education, while the monarchy favored a bilingual education and viewed French as a necessary medium for communication and exchange with Europe. Maintaining French in Moroccan education addressed real concerns of creating a language vacuum post-colonialism by removing French, especially since high school curricula were not fully articulated in Arabic until the 1980s.
In addition to the political tensions, Arabization policy suffered from critical implementation flaws. Lack of trained educators drove the country to hire teachers from the Middle East, mainly from Egypt, Syria, and Sudan. However, the Egyptian Army’s involvement in the “War of Sands” in 1963 with Algeria against Morocco, led to elimination of Egyptians from Moroccan schools, critically reducing Arabic teaching staff and temporarily suspending the Arabization process. During the late sixties and early seventies, Arabization was paused yet again when the Ministry of Education was faced with unexpectedly large numbers of students transitioning into middle school from elementary school. The system struggled to accommodate the influx of students. Additionally, the goal of making Arabic a primary tool of communication for contemporary realities somehow got lost in the process of Arabization leading to disengagement if not disenchantment with the Arabic language. Kristen Brustad, a noted expert on Arabic language pedagogy, commented on the situation of Standard Arabic in schools,
The estrangement of Arabic speakers from formal Arabic often begins with the way it is taught in school, dominated by traditional ways of teaching that stress form over function and rely on examples largely divorced from real life. Memorization is stressed at the expense of comprehension. This kind of approach has led many young learners of formal Arabic to dislike the experience and consequently the language itself. 
Sadly, this appears to have been true in the Moroccan context as well. Beyond the challenges with curricula, learning materials also suffered from various flaws. A cursory look at Arabic textbooks that have been used since 2006 for the first three years of primary school, reveals decontextualized, non-sequenced, and in some cases non-developmentally fitting presentation of language. This includes complicated grammatical concepts, complex or highly formal vocabulary, and long chunks of texts. In recent years, the textbooks received criticism from the public due to their content and errors . The critiques highlighted the role these issues played to demotivate, confuse, and intimidate students. In response to the outcries, the Ministry of Education announced in August 2017 that by the year 2018, textbooks in all subjects will be updated across primary and secondary levels. It is unclear what updates the new editions will bring and how the changes would fulfill the goal of multilingualism and proficiency in Arabic at once. The Arabization process, which took nearly 30 years to fully implement across primary and secondary curricula thus seemed destined to fail. This was not due to the characteristics or demands of the Arabic language per se, but rather to structural and system-wide challenges that plagued the endeavor from its inception.
In the last eighteen years, a number of national and international reports have sounded the alarm on the quality of education in Morocco. Among the areas of concerns were “inadequate qualifications and skills of graduates, absence of comprehensive and equitable school access” . Since 1999, the Moroccan government has initiated programs addressing these challenges, including the National Education and Training Charter 1999-2008, continued with the Education Emergency Program 2009-2012, the Education Action Plan 2013-2016, and most recently the 2015-2030 strategic vision of the education system reform. Progress has been slow, and the quality of education remains a matter of concern. Among the various elements of public education in Morocco, language of instruction continues to be controversial.
Language of instruction: realities and complexities
Research and current practices in multilingual societies have long pointed out the benefit of learning in the students’ first language, especially in the first years of primary school . This presents a significant conundrum for language of instruction policies and approaches. The first language of Moroccan children is either Moroccan colloquial Arabic (commonly known as Darija) or Amazigh languages, while the primary language taught at schools from first grade is Standard Arabic – no one’s first language. For many, Standard Arabic is a linguistic obstacle impeding success in school, especially for monolingual Amazigh students who live in largely Amazigh-populated areas and who rarely speak Darija, let alone Standard Arabic, upon arrival to primary school.
Calls for the integration of the first language of Moroccan children, such as Darija, in school curricula are not a recent phenomenon and, in fact, date back to intellectual debates preceding independence from colonial rule. In 2013, renewed propositions to integrate Darija officially were introduced by Moroccan activist Nourdine Ayouch . His proposition called for integrating a codified version of Darija as a language of study replacing Standard Arabic at the primary school. Ayouch argued that the challenges that Moroccan schools are facing, including high rates of early dropout, are directly attributable to the use of Standard Arabic. He explained that teaching in the students’ first language offers an important pedagogical and social-emotional role impacting students’ motivation to participate and enjoy the learning experience. He asserted that his proposition was inspired by Moroccan language pedagogists as well as recommendations offered in annual reports of UNESCO.
Ayouch’s proposition received sharp criticism from supporters of Standard Arabic, who viewed his ideas not as pedagogical but political. The conservative ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), was especially critical. One of its members, Abou Zayd al-Mokri al-Idrissi described the proposal as an imperialist attempt that targets Islam and Standard Arabic. Fouad Abou Ali, president of the National Coalition for the Defense of Arabic Language, asserted that the proposition threatens Morocco’s cultural and religious identity and should be dealt with caution . The sensitivity surrounding Ayouch’s proposition can be traced to historical fears dating back to the French colonial era. In the early years of the protectorate, the French administration showed a keen interest in Moroccan Arabic and established specialized dictionaries for the different regional dialects in Morocco. The administration was also planning to standardize Moroccan Arabic and establish it as the national language, but for political and logistic considerations the plan was abandoned. Both the colonial administration and Moroccan nationalists were aware that both Darija and Amazigh languages would not be able to compete with French at the academic and professional levels, but that Standard Arabic could do so. Thus, any attempt to uplift the status of Moroccan Arabic along with Amazigh languages, especially in education, was and is still considered by many a holdover of the Francophone imperial agenda and, ultimately, an obstacle to national unity if not an outright threat to cultural and religious identities.
Despite the criticism that Ayouch’s proposition provoked, it succeeded in stirring up animated discussions on a societal level about the irreconcilable gaps between home language and the academic language of schools. These discussions marked the beginning of shifts in the direction of Morocco’s language policy. In 2013, Rachid Belmokhtar, a French-trained engineer, was appointed Minister of Education. Chief among his initiatives was reinstating French as the language of instruction in Moroccan public schools starting in the first grade of academic year 2017-2018. This updated language policy is politically anomalous, in that it was approved under a government led by the conservative party—PJD whose members are staunch supporters of Standard Arabic.
Meanwhile, the utilization of French had, in practice, never really shifted from economic and intellectual realms. One could argue that the continued dominance of French as the gatekeeper of intellectual and economic activity kept the study of Arabic incompatible with the very real economic needs of the nation. While most subjects were Arabized in the primary and secondary school curricula, this policy was never implemented at the post-secondary level. This created a wide chasm and inherent disparity between those able to access learning in primary and secondary education, and those who could continue to tertiary education, which continued to be offered in French. French thus maintained its status as the key to higher education, social mobility, and economic opportunity and advancement in Morocco.
As a reaction to the perceived widespread of French use in public spheres, Abdelilah Benkirane, the Prime Minister of Morocco from November 2011 to March 2017 and leader of the PJD, along with a group of PJD deputies proposed a new bill to the house of representatives on November 15, 2017 entitled the “Protection and Development of the use of Arabic Language.” The bill, which has not yet been passed, was proposed to elevate the status of Standard Arabic and broaden its use in education and across all sectors of public life with fines issued for non-compliance. Whether this proposal will work to shift attitudes in favor of learning Arabic is doubtful, especially in light of reforms suggested by the Strategic Vision of Reform 2015-2030, which pushes for embracing a multilingual identity .
After 30 years of implementing the Arabization policy, the challenges with language education in Morocco, if not with the education system as a whole, have yet to be fully addressed. Some of the fundamental challenges of the previous policies persist. Questions about approaches and progress towards evidence-based curriculum and teaching, as well as preparation of the nation’s teachers continue. If languages will be taught in the same manner as before the new reform, it is unlikely that learning outcomes will improve. Textbooks will be changed, but little is known about the criteria directing the changes, or how these changes align with the new curricular goals. The thorny issue of language attitudes and ideologies stemming from longstanding experiences of linguistic marginalization also remain a stumbling block. To effect true change and movement towards multilingualism, the entire approach towards teaching language must shift from a grammar-oriented approach to a meaningful competencies-based approach. For now, however, the question of how the 2015-2030 reform will impact Arabic, as well as the sociolinguistic practices in Morocco, remains open-ended.
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