DON'T MISS : Talking Africa Podcast – Mozambique's insurgency: After Palma, what comes next?

Morocco: Will English replace French as the new primary official language?

By Soufiane Khabbachi
Posted on Friday, 5 November 2021 13:15

British International School of Casablanca (BISC) ©

An increasing number of English and US institutions are opening their doors in Morocco. The language of Shakespeare is gaining ground and has even dethroned French among certain segments of the population.

According to a study commissioned by the British Council, 40% of young Moroccans feel that it is more important to learn English than French, compared to only 10% who think otherwise. This figure will undoubtedly not please French language advocates in Morocco.

The most important reason given is that English is perceived as the language of education, employment and openness to the world. Is this an opinion only shared by a certain few or is there a structural trend underway that could tip the balance of power in favour of English?

21-year-old Khalil, a fourth-year student at University College London, says the choice is obvious. After completing his schooling at the French mission in Morocco, he decided – like many of his fellow students – that he wanted to attend university in an English-speaking country.

“Are we going to slowly leave the Francophonie, which is becoming too small for us, and join a globalised world governed by the Anglo-Saxons?” former diplomat Ahmed Faouzi asks.

Political dimension

Can the introduction of a language be a simple isolated phenomenon, one without any ramifications? According to Sara Mejdoubi, researcher and director of the Languages, Cultures and Civilisations Unit at the International University of Rabat, this seems highly unlikely. The arrival of a language is never innocent and, on the contrary, highlights the existence of internal struggles. “Any language strategy reflects a country’s vision,” she says.

Faouzi agrees, saying that a language “is not just for communication. It is also a marker of identity and an ideological vector. The power of the English language, like other languages in the past, reflects the balance of power between nations, which is now in favour of the Anglo-US axis,” he wrote in a column published on Medias24.

Two distinct and simultaneous phenomena are colliding, which is what has made English a dominant language in Morocco today. The first is the extent to which Shakespeare’s language has become the world’s language of negotiation, commerce, and now of teaching and research.

The process also starts from the top. Mejdoubi notes the emergence of movements and discourses that promote the English language at several levels, including at universities, where research professors are encouraged to publish in English.

The French model is losing ground

The second phenomenon at work is the loss of attractiveness of the French model, which can be explained both by its pedagogical aspect – perceived as obsolete – and by the poisonous atmosphere that has prevailed in France for several years, particularly with the debates centred around immigration and Islam.

Today, many young people feel that the French model is not as desirable as it used to be. This is particularly the case within a very privileged social class, whose young people now choose to study in Canada or the UK rather than in France.

[…] the French language will […] not be replaced by English. French is part of our heritage, our conscious and our subconscious.

In the case of Khalil, who is studying engineering, the English educational model has several advantages, not so much in terms of basic knowledge, but rather in the approach itself. “Firstly, I can choose my specialisation right away, without having to wait until my third or fourth year. Secondly, we acquire the same knowledge that we would [have] in France, but here the teachers and administration are much more accessible,” he says.

Another major advantage is the possibility of subsequently entering a grande école, including in France, without having to do a preparatory class. This is what several of Khalil’s friends have done: after they complete a course of study in England, they then attend prestigious establishments such as HEC or ESCP Europe.

Sometimes, however, the shift happens much earlier. This is the case for certain wealthy categories of the population, who place their children in expensive schools so that they can benefit from English instruction.

These two trends have considerably heightened, beyond the purely linguistic aspect, the influence of the Anglo-Saxon model in Morocco. This is evidenced by the increase in the number of English-language secondary schools that have opened in the Kingdom over the past 20 years.

Nevertheless, all of these factors must be put into perspective. Faouzi is convinced that “the French language will be not be replaced by English. French is part of our heritage, our conscious and our subconscious.”

He also points out that Moroccans have always lived in a multilingual environment. Between Arabic and French, which are both spoken by a large part of the population, Spanish, which is spoken in the northern provinces – not to mention various dialects such as Berber – Morocco has built itself around a heterogeneous linguistic identity.

The same British Council study also concludes that “although English is becoming increasingly popular, French retains a strong influence in the daily lives of young Moroccans.”

Mejdoubi is not worried about the language of Molière’s future either. “The French language has left its mark, in law, beyond culture,” she says, adding that English should be introduced as “another string to Morocco’s cultural bow.”

Mejdoubi points out that the US high school diploma is, unlike its counterpart from the French mission, not yet recognised by the Moroccan civil service, proof that the English language and Anglo-Saxon model are not yet sufficiently established in the kingdom.

This is also evidence that, despite the English language’s breakthrough, French is still largely dominant within Moroccan institutions and elite circles. Could France’s recent decision to reduce the number of visas that it grants to Moroccan nationals accelerate the process, by encouraging young people to turn to other destinations?

Although Faouzi sees this as “France’s sovereign choice”, he observes that it is treating other countries differently, even as they put mechanisms in place to encourage international elites to come and contribute to their development. “A country cannot develop in autarky,” he says.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options