The Latest in Language Confusion: Morocco Switches Back from Arabic to French

/ 03 Mar 2020

The Latest in Language Confusion: Morocco Switches Back from Arabic to French

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.

“Changing from French to Arabic and then from Arabic to French has had a negative impact on the quality of education.”

Abdelghani Erraki   A public-school teacher in Morocco

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.

Classrooms once filled with Arabic writing are now supposed to be working in French. Only numbers and symbols haven't changed (Photo: Rachel Berets).
Classrooms once filled with Arabic writing are now supposed to be working in French. Only numbers and symbols haven't changed (Photo: Rachel Berets).

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.

“They don’t really teach you how to speak French. They expect you to know French.”

Fatiha Ait Dada   An 18-year-old who studied in Arabic all through high school and now studies physics in French at Mohammed V University in Rabat

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 a program with SIT Study Abroad. Hassan Harrat of Morocco’s Connect Institute contributed reporting.




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  1. Jean says:

    French like English and Spanish are colonial languages. If you already have a highly literate nternational language like Arabic, why do you need the school curriculum to be in French.? Where is the sense of pride in Arabic. For utilitarian purposes it would have made more sense for Morrocans to switch to English for career opportunities since that language is literally spoken everywhere and far more widely than French. I suspect it’s the French Government pushing this agenda.

  2. Ruky says:

    I think they are making a huge mistake. Allowing the French to snatch their identity. Why French? Why? Stick to your Arabia and change the language in the universities to Arabic. It’s time Africans liberates themselves! And stop being suck ups!

  3. Ameena Rasheed says:

    Losers and self hating colonized people will always accept what the colonizers gave them like slaves. Sad. This is why the Arab world is zero and will continue to be minus zero. They have no dignity and pride in their own language, history and religion.

  4. Anonym says:

    As Salam
    All the oriental countries conduct education in their natural mother language, albeit in advanced education work is done also in English for looking out in the world. Certainly they have become huge centers of power houses for research technology and science. Deep formal thinking of algebraic conceptual nature comes with ALLAH’s will naturally in mother language just as with the great Sufis history has known, of such great Sheikhs who could by will of ALLAH pear so deep and reveal the knowledge ‘Ilm’.

  5. Abdou says:

    I agree there is a total confusion on this matter.I would like to mention that those after independence nationalists who struggled or rather imposed “arabization”never believed it would be the right path.Rather they wanted to create a whole generation of lowly abc s meanwhile they were sending their own children to foreign schools established in Morocco to graduate later from foreign universities as leaders who would take the best posts of command in the country .The rest who have stayed ,studied in public schools were simple sheep to execute the orders of the political leaders.Of course it took a whole generation for the politicians to see the results of their plans.The generation who went to school after iindependence had to study solid deep and we’ll structured academic programs meant to raise the students ‘ awareness of the world situation and problems in general.However the decision makers couldn t allow the calls for democracy,freedom and equality .They blackened the image of the students militanticism accusing them of revolt against the regime and the whole country.the results were catastrophic in the 60 ‘s _70’s.Morocco has been a monarchy for over 14 centuries.Never had I heard in any students ‘demonstration a truthful intention against the King.we all knew and were convinced that the king was the highest ranking referee as the Prince of the believers who had the power and the skill to stop anyone going beyond the allowed limits.However the political leaders ,except a few,used all kinds of stratagems and lies to keep their prestige and their seats.later philosophy in the lycee became distorted Islamic Thought in high school,all subjects were thought in Arabic by teachers trained in French .This confusion gave birth to a generation who refused to talk ,communicate or discuss because they believe you are an heretic simply because you think in a different way.This is where are now :the crossroads where everypolitical lobby is trying to enforce their “view” not their conviction about the education languages for electoral purposes only.Finally until we have real political leaders ,real patriots totally devoted to the welfare of the country we can t pretend that we are on the right path.

  6. موسى يعقوب says:

    التعليم إن لم يكن بلغة الأم يفقد القدرة على الإنتاج والإبداع والابتكار والتطوير والتغيير والتحديث…. يصبح خطراً جسيماً على الثقافة الوطنية والقومية والحضارة…

  7. Raja says:

    عبيد فرنسا

  8. Luna says:

    Why not? Arabic is neither a Moroccan language as their original language is Berber.

  9. Nis. says:

    Allah ya5oud fihoum l7e9 they keep switching from a language to the other. I believe that Morocco will NEVER grow simply because of the VERY poor educational system.

  10. Showlaq Khalil says:

    As expected from the pathetic Moroccan French imposed government. How on earth will a change in language will lead to attain students to carry on studying??
    Students drop out comes as natural response to poverty and insecurity from already French based curriculum tailored to keep Moroccans in the back tails of nations.
    Provide your students with free and serious approach no Mickey Mouse french education and in Arabic and watch a generation of “Yes we can” build the nation.

    Where’s the sense of pride in this Arab Muslim nation 😏.

    It’s disgusting when you go to restaurants all you get is a French menu. In cinemas, movies are dubbed and not subtitled into French. Leave the movie spoken in their production tong and translate them to Arabic. Have some pride.

    Arabic the mother tong language for over a thousand years. French is a colonial language that comes hand in hand with a century theft, murder, torture, rape, racism and spread of cultural of demeaning and distraction of moral values like prostitution, family insecurities, queers, …. etc.

    50 years in power and yet all Arab leaders still run to educate their chickens in Europe, hospitalized in Europe and spend their cash in perfecting what’s in Europe but never in their country.

    The result, some of these chickens are the once you’ll hear loudest saying “why not” and will be given all media to back them up.

  11. N V says:

    Hello,
    Sound like your poltians got presuered again.
    It makes me happy when I see Moroccans speaks English, I feel that way becouse it makes them not isolated as in the case when they speak only French.
    I am sure your politicians are going to change thier mind again.

  12. Hello,
    Sound like your poltians got presuered again.
    It makes me happy when I see Moroccans speaks English, I feel that way becouse it makes them not isolated as in the case when they speak only French.
    I am sure your politicians are going to change thier mind again.

  13. Lara says:

    We already study in french in universities, I don’t see this “snatch of identity” when it’s already snatched.
    I just see it as a good oportunity to students to extend their knowledge and be able to communicate well in foreigh languages and not have difficulties later on when attending universities.

  14. Adam says:

    Ait Dada needs to get out off her cave and realise French is not important for us nor is it in the rest of the planet. It’s a dying incompetent language. If you wanted to make the Moroccan youth more competent teach them English alongside our language Arabic.

  15. Brahim Oboray says:

    Teaching students in Arabic is the worst thing that happened to the Moroccan education system. It started when King Hassan in the early eighties was getting petrodollar money from the Gulf States and a French book criticizing him was out and talked about at French media. A generation was raised more looking at the Middle East with its radical ideologies from pan Arabism to Islamism. The regime tried to make an Amazigh /Berber country to an Arab one. The result is disastrous. With social media and the internet today, it is time for the people of Moroccan to reclaim its identity.

  16. Princess Penini says:

    Amazigh should be the official language, the original language of the nation. The alphabet is beautiful – to be preserved and taught with pride as special and unique in the world.

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