I was so excited to go to Morocco after spending the first part of the trip clueless in the language department. After having attached myself to my Spanish speaking friends and struggling even with basic phrases and numbers, I was ready to be in a country where French would be the dominating language. Finally, I would be able to communicate! Or so I thought.
Upon arriving in Tétouan, I remember seeing signs written in Arabic, with the corresponding French written underneath. Because of this, it was a surprise to me, interacting with many of the people we met in Tétouan in the hotels or in the Medina, that my French was met with blank stares, or a response in Spanish. Objectively, I knew that proximity to Spain and Céuta would affect the language topography in Morocco, but in the few days I was able to observe the interaction of language, specifically in Tétouan, I became very interested in the language policy in Morocco that influences who is speaking what.
There are four languages that scholars cite as the “official” languages of Morocco, even though the constitution of Morocco defines only Modern Standard Arabic as the national language. The other three languages are Moroccan Spoken Arabic or Darija, Berber or Tamazight, and French. The differences between these four languages tends to be incredibly bureaucratic and plays a large role in the class and socio-economic differences seen today. The languages of Darija and Tamazight are the only two that are used as the first language and are most likely conversational and used in the home – for instance, Darija is never found as a written language. For this reason, Darija and the Berber language of Tamazight are often associated with the lower classes and uneducated peoples in Morocco, because “Morocco, like all Arab countries, is a typical example of diglossy – a term for the situation when a population uses two languages, one of which is more prestigious, codified and used in official conduct and in writing, while the other serves in daily communication and is seldom recorded. In Morocco, the former is represented by Modern Standard Arabic and the latter by Moroccan Darija”. French, being a language only taught in secondary or special schools, becomes a language for the elite, typically finding its main use in the banking or diplomatic worlds.
The language barrier is particularly felt in Morocco because the shift towards language legislation is fairly recent and finds itself often in a multi-lingual mess. Tensions have arisen between Berbers and the legislature because there move to have Berber recognized as a national language has failed – and because Modern Arabic in schools is federally mandated, the Berber population is facing a much higher drop-out rate than any other population in Morocco – which in turn leads to higher illiteracy and higher unemployment rates.
French speakers also hold a particularly interesting role in Morocco, because of the countries relationship to France as a colonial power. It was not until Morocco gained independence in 1956 that French was removed as the country’s national language, but since that point, the government has made a very visible shift towards Arabization of the country, replacing areas where the more prestigious language of French would normally have been used with MSA, as a “more prestigious alternative”.
In order to explain why Spanish was much more prevalent in Tétouan than French, one must look to the 16th century, when the Moriscos were expelled from Spain – in fact, Spanish presence in Morocco far outdates that of the French. In 1860, the Spanish held a presence in Tétouan, establishing Castilian Spanish as the official language. The map below illustrates which areas today are still a part of the Spanish versus French speaking contingent. It helps to illustrate the fact that the language barriers that exist today are not only historically based, but continue to cause tensions for the population.
Spanish Morocco (Pink) vs. French Morocco (Light Green)
Source: Google Images
2005 Bernard Spolsky. ISB4: Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism, ed. James
Cohen, Kara T. McAlister, Kellie Rolstad, and Jeff MacSwan, 2152-2164. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
TOMAŠTÍK, Karel. 2010. Language Policy in the Kingdom of Morocco: Arabic,
Tamazight and French in Interaction. The Annual of Language & Politics and
Politics of Identity, Vol. IV. p. 101-116.
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