On Promoting English As a Second Language In Morocco

Drawing on an article by Nabila Taj published yesterday on Global Voices who was reporting on comments by some Moroccan bloggers and writers who are calling for an outright departure from French language in Morocco, and its replacement by English as a second language, I’d like to add my own perspective on that very important debate for Morocco indeed.

Morocco has been independent for nearly 55 years now, yet French influence is still plainly seen, heard, perceived in almost every walk of life in the country. France is actively promoting the use of its language in Morocco, if only for the enormous economic benefits its business can reap. Blaming France for that would be disingenuous of course, but the almost exclusive adoption of French in business, education, research (insofar as the latter exists) in today’s globalized world, is dramatically absurd and a strategic blunder for the country’s future. Whilst the world is talking in English (or Globish as some like to call it) and increasingly in Mandarin, in Morocco we’re happy to keep ourselves culturally and economically subjected to one single economy and culture that some, arguably, claim is in decline (that’s what the French themselves think anyway [Fr]).

Had the exclusive adoption of the French language in education, research, business, undergone the meticulous test of public and democratic scrutiny, there would have been more than one reason to ditch it in favor of English and maybe also other languages. Unconvinced? Take a look at these comments:

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -June 2010

[in Pittsburgh, USA,] study found that percentages of enrollment growth for [French and German] from 2002 to 2006 was in the single digits, compared to double-digit growth for Chinese and Spanish and triple-digit growth for Arabic.
These days, neither French nor German is considered central to the modern American’s life or sensibility, says John McWhorter, a linguist and contributing editor at The Manhattan Institute, a New York City think tank.

“The emphasis on French learning back in the day was based on a logical desire to teach people a language that most foreigners they were likely to meet could speak,” he said. “Today knowing some French is one part a marker of middle-class propriety and one part a key to reading ‘Madame Bovary.’ “

Daily Mail Online – June 2010

A former Foreign Office minister has branded French a ‘useless’ modern language.
Chris Bryant, now a shadow Foreign Office minister, told the Commons other languages – such as Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic – were more important.

Associated Press – June 2010

Language instructors say the rapidly growing Chinese economy is causing French language classes to be phased out and replaced with Mandarin Chinese classes in private and public schools.
[S]urvey in 2006 showing enrollment in French between 1990 and 2006 was down by 43%. Chinese was up 106%.

Actually I don’t think it would be wise to phase out French (or Spanish for that matter) completely, and I am not in the business of disparaging France here, but rather calling for a more informed choice based on the best of interests for the country.

Apart from the big picture and the silly restrictions that Morocco imposes on itself as far as dealing with the rest of the world is concerned, the exclusive adoption of the French language in the judiciary or in higher education for example has some perverse local implications that sometimes defy common sense. Moroccan blogger and lawyer Ibn Kafka touches upon [Fr] the implications of the systematic copycat of French laws that are transfered (or only rarely edited) and adopted as Moroccan Law, “exactly as if Morocco were a French territory” says the blogger.

I studied medicine in Casablanca entirely in French. I remember my first medical consultation pretty well. Most patients we treated were poor, mostly illiterate, speaking exclusively Arabic or Berber, little French or no French at all. Symptoms upon which we were supposed to base our diagnosis were usually described in vernacular Moroccan Arabic. Each time we finally happily made a diagnosis we had to go to great lengths to explain what we thought the patient was suffering from. Our courses of Anatomy, Physiology, Pathology… were unedited copies of French courses. Even when professors had to back their words with statistics they invariably came up with French epidemiological figures. It was really (and continues to be) a surreal environment where we knowingly learned things that dind’t match reality. What we learned served primarily to pass exams. Once in the real world, it was a completely different story.

More and more Moroccans are now asking for a revival of the Arabic language (not without controversy – read this interesting work on that subject from The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) in higher education in particular and for the promotion of English.

A group on Facebook unambiguously called Moroccans For English counts more than 1,600 members. The group describes itself in these terms:

This group aims to gather all Moroccans and friends of Morocco who share the same desire of seeing Morocco finally hop into the train of modernization and globalization by means of acquiring the number one spoken language in the world.
It is the language of finance and business, diplomacy, science and technology, showbiz and any other important sector.
For decades, Morocco has been missing out on this important factor of success in this modern world. The few lucky ones who realized the opportunity have seen doors of endless possibilities open before their eyes. The majority of us stayed behind, cut from the rest of the world, happy to converse and do business with our closest neighbours only. We waited tirelessly and repeatedly for French translations of new inventions, technology, reports, movies and so on.

Whilst the desire to emancipate from former colonial France is real and powerful, it is important to remember that learning English in itself is certainly not sufficient to open the doors for foreign investment and prosperity for the country. Indeed some of the poorest countries on earth do speak English almost as a first language. I do believe Moroccans can make their knowledge and mastery of the French language an asset rather than a liability. Rather than looking at English and French as exclusive to each other we should be trying to get the best of the two worlds.