Politics of language in Morocco

6 minutes to read
Noura Yacoubi

Morocco is a multilingual society where languages compete for social, political and economic power. This situation can be understood through an examination of the country's language policies, not only by asking the questions 'what?' and 'how?', but also, more importantly, the why-question. There is competition for power between the languages, and the role of the state is crucial. 

Language diversity in Morocco

In Morocco, multiple languages are used which makes Morocco de facto a multilingual society. The main languages are Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish and English (Zouhir, 2013).

Classical Arabic is the language of the Quran and revelation. It is used by Muslims in prayers and other Islamic ceremonies and therefore enjoys a prestigious status in Morocco and in the Arab world in general. Modern Standard Arabic, like Classical Arabic, is nobody’s mother tongue. It has always been a language of prestige in Morocco. It is used in formal spheres such as education, media, and the administration and it is considered an official language of Morocco (Zouhir, 2013).

Moroccan Arabic has a low status and is the native language of most people in Morocco. It functions as the lingua franca in Morocco. Another mother tongue is Berber, also recognized as an official language. It is considered the original indigenous language, i.e. it existed in Morocco before Arabization. Berbers were already living in Morocco long before the arrival of Arabs who brought with them a new religion, a new culture, and a new language to which Berbers were forced to adapt (Sadiqi, 1997). 

Foreign languages like French, English, and Spanish are also in use in Morocco, with French in a dominant position and an important language of instruction in private schools (Loutfi, 2017). Though it is not an official language it is conceived as a prestigious language, and the one needed to access the job market (Loutfi, 2017).

Although Morocco is socially and linguistically diverse, its language policy reveals an overall perspective of monolingualism (Zouhir, 2014). Language policy problems are often simply viewed as the result of insufficient planning, research, and/or resources. Such observations are flawed, as they do not examine the role of the state in the policy implementation process and the strategies adopted by the state to establish a specific ideology (Zouhir, 2014). Let us have a look at the long-standing language policy since Morocco’s independence.

The Arabization of Morocco

From 1912 to 1956, the period that Morocco was a colony of France, the French language was designated as the medium of instruction in schools and it became the second language of Morocco (Zouhir, 2013). This Francophone policy led to the subordination of Arabic and a divide in the country with contradictory ideologies (Laachir, 2015). Nationalists and conservative parties pleaded for the replacement of French with Arabic, in other words, they advocated for the language of tradition and authenticity instead of the language of the colonizer. Meanwhile, French was implicitly favored in many institutions by Moroccan officials (Chahhou, 2014).

Berber speakers conceived the Arabization policy as linguistic genocide.

A policy of Arabization was implemented after Morocco's independence in 1956 and Modern Standard Arabic became the medium of instruction in schools. It seems that this policy is based on an understanding of multilingualism as an obstacle for cultural unity and development. Berber speakers, for instance, had to assimilate completely to the Arabic identity to create unity. However, they interpreted this policy as one of linguistic genocide (Zouhir, 2014). Nevertheless, this top-down policy continued for a long time and continued to ignore the multilingual and multicultural population (Zouhir, 2014).

Politics and power

Language policies are created to solve problems or to meet a need, but they can also be created to protect the position of those in power, or even to create or maintain inequality by favoring the languages of particular groups. Language policies are basically invisible and reveal themselves only in the doings of the elite (Zouhir, 2014). Arabization seems not to meet general needs or stimulate scientific exchange, but rather seems to be linked to political control (Alalou, 2017).

The messages of cultural independence and national unity that Arabization brought re-affirmed a national identity, which had been buried for many years under the French Protectorate. Those in power set this policy in motion as a cultural fact of independence, without taking the multicultural nature of Morocco into consideration (Loutfi, 2017 ). What the policy disguised is the harm it would do. For illiterate people, for example, this policy was rather symbolic as they had never learned to read and write any language (Piet, 2016). Also, the Arabic language is not perceived as equally valuable in the higher segments of the job market as other foreign languages, especially French (Loutfi, 2017 ). The promise that Arabization would create equality, therefore, has actually brought more divisions in view of the divide that exists in Morocco between wealthy families educated in French and the majority of the population educated in Arabic public schools, the latter basically becoming low-status workers (Alalou, 2017).

Forcing people to use Arabic to create a monolingual society is an unrealistic ideal.

Despite the fact that Arabization was created to undo the effects of the colonial past, a different motivation for the policy can be observed, one that has to do with politics and maintaining power. Since forcing people to use Arabic to create a monolingual society is an unrealistic ideal, some argue that the policy was intended to divide the elite from the rest so that competition for prestigious and highly paid careers was limited, as these jobs are guaranteed to French speakers (Bulldock, 2014). This explains why universities kept French as their medium of instruction (Benitez Fernandez, de Ruiter & Tamer, 2012), with the effect that Moroccan students who went to public schools get confronted with a linguistic barrier when arriving at university, effectively limiting their possibilities for success in higher education. In addition, the economic sector was not targeted for the Arabization policy at all (Benitez Fernandez, de Ruiter & Tamer, 2012), which implies that Arabic is not suited for this sector and again creates an obstacle for public school students when entering the job market.

The failure of the politics of Arabization in Morocco

The thirty years of Arabization have not worked out and have resulted in disadvantaged students and increasing enrollment in private schools that use foreign languages, creating an even greater division in society (Piet, 2016). French retained the power status it received in colonial times (Laachir, 2015) and it is still considered as the gateway to modernity, and the rest of the world (Alalou, 2017).

Education in Morocco has often been accused of being the main obstacle to greater economic development of the country.

The educational system, in general, has endured a lot of criticism, because of the high rates of illiteracy and high dropout rate. In 2016 it was therefore decided that French would replace Modern Standard Arabic as the medium of instruction, starting in first grade (Alalou, 2017). However, the question remains whether this reform will succeed, as many policy reforms are doomed to fail in the Maghreb in general because of identity politics (Alalou, 2017). Furthermore, with the appearance of globalization, the emergence of English in Morocco as a preferred foreign language is causing linguistic tensions (Zouhir, 2014).

What is obvious is that the Moroccan linguistic landscape is complex and that the ideological perspective of one language to unify the whole country has failed. Tensions should not be about which language will win, but about how the various languages can co-exist, and how they can all contribute to the country's national identity.


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