The Berber Language: Officially Recognized, Unofficially Marginalized?

/ 28 Sep 2016

The Berber Language: Officially Recognized, Unofficially Marginalized?

Ten years after Tamazight—the language of the Amazigh, the country’s Berber population— began being taught in schools here, and four after it was constitutionally recognized as an official language, it remains unclear how it will be incorporated into education.

The recognition of Tamazight has been very meaningful, a redefinition of Moroccan identity, says Paul Silverstein, an anthropologist at Reed College who has studied the issue.

Tamazight is the standardized version of the Amazigh languages. An estimated 25 to 30 million speakers of Tamazight and other Berber dialects are spread throughout the North African countries, from the Atlantic Ocean to Egypt. (See related story “In Algeria, the Berber Language Can’t Get an Educational Foothold.”)

In Morocco, a host of questions surround the place of the Berber language in schools: “What language is being taught? For whom? For what purpose? Is it purely a gesture?” asks Silverstein.

Amazigh languages (there are three main regional variants) are spoken by an estimated 35 to 40 percent of Morocco’s population. But North African political discourse, whether nationalist or Islamist, has long been hostile to the Amazigh language, perceived as a threat to national cohesion. For decades, giving children Amazigh names was forbidden in Morocco. Not recognizing the language spoken in the country’s poor rural interior was an effective means of discrimination that shut the Berbers out from participating politically, socially and economically in Moroccan society.

In 1994, King Hassan II came out in favor of teaching Tamazight in schools, partly due to a larger political opening and partly in response to the pressure of Amazigh-rights activists. In 2003, his son, now King Mohamed VI, put the initiative into practice. In the new constitution he helped create in 2011, Tamazight was recognized as one of Morocco’s official languages. Tamazight writing now adorns the facades of most public buildings.

But “there isn’t a real language policy yet,” says Abdeslem Khalafi, a researcher at the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (Institut Royale de la Culture Amazigh du Maroc, IRCAM). “There’s hesitation. Mentalities aren’t ready to integrate Tamazight and give it a chance. There’s a change in discourse, but not yet in practice.”

The king created the institute in 2003, and its researchers came up with a standardized written alphabet for a language that has many dialects and has been transmitted orally for millennia. Khalafi worked on the development of the new alphabet and new textbooks to teach the language. Creating a new alphabet was controversial in and of itself. Tamazight has historically more often been written in Arabic or the Roman alphabet. Tamazight is now only taught to about 12 percent of Moroccan students. Because of this, thousands of children whose first language is Tamazight flunk out of school, he says.

Khalafi and his colleagues at the Royal Institute believe that students should begin their education in their native languages—the Moroccan dialect of Arabic or whatever Amazigh dialect they speak—and then learn the standardized version. They are calling for six hours a week of Tamazight throughout primary and secondary education.

berber-girl

A Berber girl in Morocco (credit: Justin Clemens, Flickr)

Those opposed to the addition of Tamazight to the curriculum argue that it muddles an already complicated linguistic landscape, and that students are better served by learning languages that can benefit them in the global economy.

“It’s not the language of instruction that is an obstacle for students,” replies Khalafi, “but the [poor] training of teachers. Integrating Tamazight is a gain even for the other languages,” he argues, because studies have shown that “a child who is welcomed to school in his native language learns other languages more easily.”

Five thousand Tamazight teachers who trained at the Royal Institute are in the field today. Fatima Ibrahimi, who teaches Tamazight in a school in the capital city of Rabat, is one of them. Ibrahimi was trained as an Arabic teacher, but as a native speaker of Tamazight, she volunteered to be re-trained to teach that language.

Arabic, French and other foreign languages may be openings on the region and the rest of the world and carry professional advantages, says the teacher. But to teach those languages alone is a “materialist way of thinking,” she says. She believes Moroccans should learn Tamazight because it is part of their heritage. Pointing to an Arabic-speaking friend who sat with her during an interview, Ibrahimi said: “We’re both Moroccan. Why is his language taught in school and not mine?”

For many speakers of Tamazight, teaching their language is a question of social justice. His mother and grandmother only spoke Tamazight, says Khalafi. “It was their only opening on the world. Their whole life they couldn’t watch TV, listen to the radio, or make themselves understood if they went to a hospital.” Today there are some media in the Amazigh language. But courts, hospitals and other parts of the public administration still operate exclusively in Arabic.

When Khalafi was a university student, he had to argue with his advisor to be allowed to do research on Amazigh folk tales. University departments of Amazigh language and culture exist at the universities of Fez, Oujda, Rabat and Agadir, each with several thousand graduates.

Abdellah Bounfour is a researcher at the Centre de Recherche Berbere (Berber Research Center), which is part of the historic Institut National des Langues et Civilizations Orientales (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations) in Paris. The center is the oldest and one of the very few to focus on Berber culture, linguistics and language; it cooperates with IRCAM and the programs at Moroccan universities.

Bounfour suggests it would have been better to focus on introducing Tamazight at the university level first. The introduction of Tamazight has largely failed, he wrote in an e-mail, due to general problems with Morocco’s underperforming education, the poor training of teachers, and the creation of standardized Tamazight that doesn’t correspond to any spoken language. “Teaching a language is a political, not a pedagogical decision,” says Bounfour.

One of Bounfour’s colleagues, Salem Chaker, has written that “the Berber language presents an inarguable scientific interest. It constitutes a veritable ‘laboratory situation’: a ‘stateless’ language, marginalized for the last two thousand years, in close and permanent contact with other languages, extremely rich in dialect but also homogenous over an enormous geographic area, presenting many original features.”

The decision to include Tamazight in the curriculum is important symbolically, says Silverstein, as “a recognition that being Berber is not something you should hide.” But “there’s a gap between the symbolic value of Tamazight and the pragmatic way in which Tamazight will be actually, functionally important for people,” he says. Even Amazigh activists and intellectuals do not generally work and write in the language. According to the Royal Institute, only 250 books have been written in Tamazight.

Silverstein doubts that the new education policy will stem the ongoing decline in Tamazight speakers. The language competes with English, French and Arabic, and when young people think about what they will need in the future, Tamazight often takes second place, he says.

Berber identity is more recognized than ever before in the country’s history, but this recognition is unlikely to stem the language’s decline.




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  1. stephen gall says:

    after spending some time on Tenerife I found myself wondering who were the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands.
    It appears that they are known as the Guanches Berbers, and DNA samples have proved this fact.

    However, I believe that they probably where in mainland Spain first of all, and then sailed to the Canaries on
    Spanish ships under what conditions and for what reason I do not know.

    Or, Spanish ships stopped at North Africa and transported them for what ever reason.


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