Morocco’s language lesson to boost prosperity
Of the many indicators used to measure a country’s prospects for development, perhaps the most overlooked is that of language. Across the world, governments looking to secure competitive advantages are facing critical decisions about linguistic policies.
This is nowhere more so than in Morocco, where an attachment to French in certain quarters has sought to stratify rather than mobilize Moroccan society. With youth unemployment having reached an all-time high in 2020, the focus is on creating jobs that better integrate Morocco with international markets — an objective that cannot be reached with the French language.
There has been a marked shift in gear in the past 12 months. The quaint North African kingdom, long restricted by development challenges, has adopted a range of political, economic and military policies to project itself internationally. Last month it launched its new economic strategy to great fanfare, with the unmistakable English-language marketing “Morocco Now.” The challenges of remaining competitive are leading to a gradual discarding of French, as young people strive to integrate into the wider world.
Morocco has been moving fast, last year rising again in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” rankings. The strategically located kingdom has enjoyed year-on-year growth since the global financial crisis and has shown remarkable resilience during the pandemic. Nevertheless, to sustain economic progress in the long term, French-speaking Morocco will continue to rely on foreign direct investment, in the form of cheques that are written largely in English.
While Mandarin Chinese and Hindi are growing, the use of English also remains on the rise. Globally as many as 1.5 billion people have learned or are learning English – that’s nearly 1 out of every 6 people on earth. For emergent countries such as Morocco, adopting English is not an insurmountable challenge. Rwanda and Cameroon are just two Francophone countries that are making concerted efforts to expand its use.
But it is easy to see from Morocco’s history why this is more complex than it looks. The native language was Berber; the subsequent Arab conquest brought an almost comprehensive Arabization. Successive periods of foreign influence also left their linguistic mark. Today, Arabic is the official language, followed by Berber, French and Spanish. English occupies fifth position.
However, while Arabic and French are both beautiful languages, English is the lingua franca of international business. China, whose economy props up that of the world, is investing heavily in the teaching of English. English now dominates digital, tourist and economic vocabularies. Even French, despite its historical predominance and 275 million speakers across the globe, is now being left behind. Six of the ten worst-developed countries ranked by the UN Development Programme are French-speaking African states.
The quaint North African kingdom, long restricted by development challenges, has adopted a range of political, economic and military policies to project itself internationally.
Zaid M. Belbagi
In Morocco, there is an appetite for change. In 2002, reforms stipulated that English would be taught in all public schools. Last year Morocco’s Ministry of National Education said it would adopt a Bachelor system for higher education, switching it from the Licence, Master, Doctorat (LMD) system. However, despite these moves, the numbers of anglophone Moroccans remain low. According to a report compiled for the British Council, 18 percent of the population speak English, though 82 percent “consider speaking English as beneficial.”
Billboards all over Morocco now gleam with English marketing slogans — “Free,” “Life” and “Love.” Nevertheless, French continues to complement Arabic as the language of written expression and academia. When it comes to communicating on the world stage, Morocco remains enveloped in a Francophone cocoon. The French-educated elites who reabsorbed economic and political power in the second half of the 20th century retained their influence through their command of French. But today, for countries such as Morocco with limited natural resources, the need to adapt to global markets supersedes the need to perpetuate local petty monopolies.
As in other African countries that have altered their language policies, the impetus for change should come from the government. Given that English skills are a primary tool in the global economy, the government must support its teaching. At present, public schools teach English only from the age of 10; this could be made earlier so students complete schooling with a better level of English.
The government could also endorse more universities like Morocco’s globally renowned Al-Akhawayn University, where English is the medium of study. More investment needs to be made in the education and training of English. At present the government does not pay for all employees who request training in English. At the national level, the government could increase the time allocated to English television and radio programs. Prime Minister Aziz Akhounouch, who owes his support to the Berber-speaking electorate, recently allocated millions to encourage the learning of Amazigh. This is the only experience worldwide of expensively reinstating a language that was supplanted almost two millennia ago by conquest. It is short-termist and ill-timed for a country whose priority should be anglicization.
Morocco has singled out air freight, financial services, tourism and the aeronautic sectors for growth, where it has a competitive advantage. These sectors require a working knowledge of English, with recent studies showing over 90 percent of jobs require English as at least a second language. By equipping young Moroccans with these skills, jobs will be created and living standards raised. To continue to drive development it is linguistic, as much as economic, policy that should be on the agenda in Morocco.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid