“In English please? » Soukayna Mahandi interrupts the discussion. She prefers to continue in English, she feels less comfortable with French. “Our generation uses English a lot, explains the 19-year-old Moroccan girl, whom she met at Mohammed VI University in Casablanca, where she is studying medicine. We exchange messages, we talk to each other, we read, we watch films… in English. For us, it is the language of the future! »
On university campuses in Morocco, the darija (dialectal Arabic) seems in fact to have become permeable to English. Or at least to “globish”, its simplified version. A language that Othman Al-Gorch, 20, in the faculty of economics, judges “easier, more useful, more popular”. Popular to such an extent that in his eyes, a “beginning of switch” is taking place among his generation: “French is gradually disappearing, English is replacing it. We are moving away from an old system to move towards a more modern, more open Morocco. And so much the better. »
Is Morocco, the fourth most French-speaking country in the world, slowly “switch” ? The International Organization of La Francophonie estimates the proportion of French speakers in the country at 36%. Without being an official language, French continues to occupy an important place in economic life, administration and the media. It is the first foreign language of schoolchildren and enjoys the status of language of instruction in two thirds of higher education courses. Doubts, however, are being heard about the future of the Francophonie, faced with an attachment to the language of Molière which would crumble among a large part of young Moroccans, in favor of that of Shakespeare.
According to a survey published by the British Council in 2021, 40% of them consider English the most important language to learn, compared to 10% for French. Two-thirds believe that English will supplant French as the first foreign language in the coming years.
A preference that is also measured by the yardstick of their school level: only 11% of students master the prerequisites in French at the end of middle school, according to the latest national assessment published in 2021. “Upon reaching the baccalaureate, a student received 2,000 hours of French instruction, compulsory from the first year of primary school, against less than 400 hours of English, taught from the last year of college. However, they often have a higher level in English », reports Fouad Chafiqi, Inspector General of Educational Affairs at the Ministry of National Education. Their “self-learning practices”, their ” language immersion “ in a largely English-speaking cultural universe, explain, according to him, this gap. Like the fact that “English tends to become a second language for them, and no longer a foreign one”.
Current “irreversible” thus began, according to the anthropologist Mohamed-Sghir Janjar, “undoubtedly similar to what Tunisia and Algeria are experiencing, and to what happened in Lebanon or Egypt”. In Morocco, observes the founder of the journal Prologues, “English arrived without our knowledge. It was late in the last ten years that we discovered that our children spoke English. Social demand is changing and public authorities are jumping on the bandwagon”.
On May 23, the Ministry of Education announced in a circular the gradual generalization, by 2025, of the teaching of English from the first year of college. In high school, there is talk of making it a language of instruction for certain subjects, as is the case with French, while English-speaking courses are multiplying in universities. At the same time, a supply of trilingual private schools is developing in the big cities. Seven British schools have sprung up since 2019 which, alongside the historic five American schools, compete with those of a largely predominant French network of 42 establishments – the second in the world after that of Lebanon.
“Very limited French-speaking space”
The evolution of the linguistic landscape in Morocco can also be seen in the English-speaking shelves which are growing in bookstores, in the creation, in 2021, of an English learning program on national radio. Or the announcement, at the beginning of May, of a project to broadcast information in English on public television channels.
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Few studies yet question this penchant for English among young Moroccans. Can it be summed up as a fad, a utilitarian choice? Does it have a political dimension? If Soukayna chose to study in the country’s first English-speaking faculty of medicine, to open in 2021, it is because English is “the international language: research, publications, conferences… Everything is in English, while the French-speaking space is very limited. » France would no longer be the preferred destination for Moroccan students, according to her: “Most dream of finishing their studies in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Dubai…”
For others, English is a neutral language, with no colonial past. “More than sixty years after independence, it is time to turn the page”, argues Jawad Touzribt, a student in an engineering school. A colonial heritage, the French language is also traditionally that of the country’s elite. But these balances of power, according to this young 23-year-old Casablancan, are changing: “Before, you spoke French a little to show your social level. Today, young people no longer want these divisions. English is more democratic, it’s for everyone. »
An evolution of social markers, in short, which is measured at both ends of the scale. Among young people from working-class backgrounds, who carry their low level of French as a stigma, the use of English appears to be a “revenge” : “Failing to master the social norm of the elites, they move away from it even more and return the stigma”, were analyzing, in a column published in The Conversation in September 2022, Hafsa Al-Bekri, researcher at the Euro-Mediterranean University of Fez, and Hicham Sebti, deputy director of Essec in Rabat, who looked into this preference for English among their students.
In privileged circles, young people identify with a “new elite” more English-speaking, “formed on the benches of American, Canadian and British universities, which promotes a more intense use of English and the strengthening of links with the Anglo-Saxon world”. At the same time, add the two academics, “the subjects of tension between France and Morocco, in particular visa restrictions, or the rise of xenophobic discourse in France, have revived the questions of this elite as to its privileged relationship with this partner”.
In a context of great diplomatic coldness between Paris and Rabat, the recent announcement of the generalization of English in middle school was interpreted and welcomed on social networks as a measure “anti-French”while lobbying for a ” replacement “ of French through English at school is fueled by growing tensions. “However, this is not the position of the institution, which has a strategy of linguistic diversification rather than substitution, assures Mr. Chafiqi. And in my opinion, French is an element of our heritage to be preserved. » However, he observes, “this question of replacement, which did not arise a few years ago, now comes up regularly in societal debates including those in Parliament”.
But “Can we be happy to stop teaching French? Why cut yourself off from one language, especially when you have a centuries-old history of multilingualism? », asks Kenza Sefrioui. For the Franco-Moroccan journalist and editor, coordinator of the collective work Morocco: the war of languages? (In full, 2018), this claim with the aftertaste of rupture misses the real issue: “That of having an education system capable of giving everyone access to the major international languages, of guaranteeing equal opportunities. » And thus to get out of the logic of linguistic domination and exclusion that fractures Moroccan society.