A Stark Contrast: The Value and Prioritization of Foreign Language Education in Morocco as Compared to the United States
Learning to speak a World Language is an important gateway to increasing global competence and advancing global citizenship. As a teacher of World Languages, I recognize the need for improvement in teaching foreign languages within my community, my state, and the United States in general. After conducting research in my own district and state, I was able to utilize my teaching exchange in Morocco to learn how schools in another part of the world value and prioritize foreign language education. Buffalo, Wyoming According to our most recent census statistics, 18-25% of the U.S. population speaks a foreign language or identifies as “bilingual.” However, the majority of that demographic very well may be Spanish-speaking citizens who have learned English as their second-language. On whole, our country remains very monolingual. This is especially true for U.S. citizens whose first language is English. In my home state of Wyoming, the percentage of self-identifying bilingual citizens is <7%, which is even lower than the national average. In my community, the percentage seems yet again to be even lower than that. I teach Spanish in a rural school where 352 of 353 students speak English as a first language, and only 6 students could be considered nearly proficient in a second language at this point. Most people in my community speak only English, and many hold the cultural and political view that the U.S. should be an English-only country in general. On whole, this is an attitude that I see reflected in the attitudes and opinions of my students.
Over the past eight years, there has been an attempt at the state level to improve the quality of and focus on learning world languages in Wyoming. That attempt has best been reflected in new state policies regarding state college funding. Both the state’s scholarship program and the only 4-year university in the state have raised their standards to require students to complete two years of language studies. While this policy shift has nearly doubled enrollment in world language classes state-wide, what it has not seemed to impact is the overall attitude toward learning languages among high school students and parents.
Salé, Morocco While the official language of Morocco is Modern Standard Arabic, two-thirds of Moroccans grow up speaking Darija or “Moroccan Arabic” as a first language. Although the majority of Moroccans speak Darija in their homes, Modern Standard Arabic (or “Classical Arabic) remains the language of school instruction from K-12. However, even that varies from school to school and program to program. Beyond those two languages, Morocco is the home to speakers of several languages. Berber languages, varying dialects of Arabic, French, and Spanish (in the North) are all widely spoken among Moroccans with the recent addition of English – which seems to be gaining popularity among the youth of Morocco.
Modern Standard Arabic, as the official language, is naturally used for education systems, but most official business is conducted in French. Therefore, Moroccans have to know either one or the other. Because these languages are often in addition to Berber languages and Darija which are commonly spoken in Moroccan homes, almost all Moroccans can be considered to be at least bilingual, if not trilingual or polyglots (speakers of multiple languages).
Before traveling to Morocco, I researched the history of language development and foreign language education in Morocco. What I found was that overall, Morocco is an incredibly complex country in terms of multilingualism, due in part to the forty-year pursuit of a “simple language policy – Arabization – with the apparent aim of creating a monolingual nation” (Marley, 2002) which began directly after Morocco declared itself independent from France in 1956. Before that, Morocco had been plunged (for 44 years) into an all-French education system. “During the Protectorate, 1912-1956, knowledge of French was essential to obtaining and maintaining power” (Grandguillaume, 1983). So for nearly two generations, Moroccans had consistently used French in all educational and professional contexts. If we fast-forward to year 2000, Morocco saw yet another dramatic change in language education policy. With the Charter of Educational Reform, adopted in 2000, the new policy provided three major tenets: “the reinforcement and improvement of Arabic teaching, the diversification of languages for teaching science and technology, and an openness to Tamazight (Berber)” (The Charter for Educational Reform). If we pair these policies and educational structures with centuries upon centuries of occupation by various neighboring ethnic and linguistically diverse nations, what we naturally find in Morocco is a linguistically diverse nation of bilingual and trilingual citizens.
Although I had already researched much of the linguistic history of Morocco before traveling, I found that when I actually began school visits in Rabat and Salé, I had not fully understood the complex nature and role that language instruction would play in all subject areas in Morocco’s public and private education systems. In fact, as I write this, I’m not sure that I fully understand the entire dynamic of Moroccan language attitudes and prioritization even after conducting interviews and witnessing these dynamics first hand in a variety of classes.
During my three weeks in Morocco, we were able to visit eight different schools. These schools, though all were located within or near Rabat, were quite different in several ways. Three were private schools while five were public schools. It was difficult to discern at times, as some of the school visits were quite scripted and we were shuffled quickly from room to room, how students felt about language education, as well as how languages were valued and prioritized by each school as a whole. While both science classes we visited contained silent and attentive students, the language classes were often loud and boisterous. Much seemed dependent, much like in the U.S., upon each teacher’s overall classroom management and design. What I did learn from our multiple school visits, was that I had missed something during my research regarding language history and language use in public education in Morocco – there are many high schools that operate solely in French, and some that operate solely in Arabic. And even more surprising, within any one school, some subjects are taught in Classical Arabic while others are conducted entirely in French. It is my understanding, after interviewing several educators, that it is common practice for schools in Morocco to track students into one of two tracks: Sciences & Technology OR Humanities. The Sciences track carries with it a general attitude of “prestige” or “elitism” while, as one educator put it, “the students who struggle and do not have as much ‘potential’ are encouraged to take the ‘humanities’ track.” Oftentimes, those students who are encouraged into the Sciences track generally demonstrate proficiency or mastery in French. In fact, the Science and Technology courses are generally taught in French, while most classes in the Humanities track are taught using Arabic. What this indicates is that language deficiency in learning French as a second or third language can easily limit a student’s academic prospects throughout Morocco.
As a speaker of three languages myself, and a teacher in a school system with such limited linguistic diversity, I was very excited to experience a school system that is filled with bilingual and trilingual students. My placement in a public high school in Salé did not disappoint. Immediately, as I began my fellowship placement in an English as a “third” language classroom, it became apparent that the average high school language learner in Salé approached his/her language learning with much more zest and confidence than the average student in my hometown. It was apparent, through brief interviews with students, that most students valued world language education. To them, being bilingual was just a part of their reality. It meant speaking one language at home naturally, learning classical Arabic to participate in many religious ceremonies, using French at their high school to study Science, etc, and then learning English as a foreign language interest. When questioned “why are you studying English,” most students responded that they recognize “English is an important language for the future – a language of technology,” etc. After spending three weeks studying language teaching and student attitudes toward language education in Morocco, I find that my findings (although quite qualitative) are in direct correlation with those of Dawn Marley in her report, “Language Attitudes in Morocco Following Recent Changes in Language Policy.” For one, Darija seems to represent, in large part, Moroccan national identity. Next, French remains very useful for working in Morocco, as well as studying Science and Technology. Furthermore, students and teachers alike note that Arabic-French bilingualism offers advantages to Moroccans and that there is always an advantage to speak two languages.
Bringing It Full Circle… Historical, social, and linguistic differences between the United States and Morocco hamper any true comparison between language education programs between the two countries; however, education reform over the past fifteen years in both countries indicates that they share similar desires to improve the teaching of languages in public education systems. The qualitative information I was able to collect from students and teachers, paired with a bit of outside research, has provided for me the very beginnings of comprehending the complexity of both language education and the languages of education in Morocco as compared with that of the United States. Resources & Further Reading: “America’s Lacking Language Skills.” The Atlantic. Online Edition. 2015. Theatlantic.com. Date accessed: 20 July 2016.
Grandguillaume, Gilbert (1983). Arabisation et Politique Linguistique au Maghreb. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose.
Jordan, Sarah-Claire (2015). “Eight Things You Should Know About the Languages of Morocco.” Alpha Omega Translations.
Marley, Dawn (2002). “Diversity and Uniformity. Linguistic Fact and Fiction in Morocco”. In Kamal Salhi (Ed), French In and Out of France. Language Policies, Intercultural Antagonisms and Dialogue (pp. 335-376).
Marley, Dawn (2003). “Language Attitudes in Morocco Following Recent Changes in Language Policy”. Department of Linguistic, Cultural and International Studies, University of Surrey. Language Policy 3, 2004. (pp. 25-46).
Create your own unique website with customizable templates.