Morocco weighs teaching science in French

The language measure is meant to better prepare Arabised students for higher education in scientific specialties that are taught in French.
Sunday 21/04/2019
A question of efficiency. A student reads French words during a class in the Oudaya primary  school in Rabat.   (Reuters)
A question of efficiency. A student reads French words during a class in the Oudaya primary school in Rabat. (Reuters)

CASABLANCA - The issue of teaching scientific subjects in foreign languages is dividing politicians and intellectuals in Morocco where the public education sector faces a crisis despite reforms.

A draft law that would regulate the education sector and which was adopted by the Council of Ministers in mid-2018 has been blocked in parliament because of the provision that provides for teaching scientific and technical subjects in French and, to a lesser extent, English.

The language measure, initiated by the Higher Council of Education, is meant to better prepare Arabised students for higher education in scientific specialties that are taught in French.

Arabisation of education occurred in Morocco in the early 1980s to boost conservatives and Islamists against a growing leftist current. However, the policy created a crisis in public education, whose quality has deteriorated as expensive private schools have sprouted up in many cities of the country.

Arabic and Amazigh are Morocco’s two official languages ​​but French is widely used, including in finance and health care. More than one-third of Moroccans are French speakers, a 2018 survey by the International Organisation of the Francophonie stated.

Mourad Alami, a professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat and expert in linguistics, said a change was necessary because the Arabisation of scientific subjects up to the baccalaureate has not yielded results.

The ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) along with the two main opposition parties — the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) and the Istiqlal

Party (PI) — boycotted a meeting called by Speaker of the House of Representatives Habib El Malki to reconcile views and set a date for a committee vote on the measure after it had been blocked by the PJD.

Abdelilah Benkirane, who had been prime minister from 2011-17, in a posting on Facebook called on PJD MPs not to vote for proposed text. He said Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani should resign from office rather than accept the “Frenchising” of scientific subjects.

“It would be a shame if history records that the PJD has gone backward on such a fundamental point and more dangerous than the government blockage,” said Benkirane.

The PI, which deems the bill unconstitutional, asked Othmani to apply Article 103 of the constitution, linking the vote on the draft law to a vote of confidence in the government. It said discussion of the measure was marked by an “unprecedented legislative crisis” in the government.

PJD member and State Minister Mustapha Ramid said he was for the use of Arabic as a language of education but also for openness to foreign languages, while considering the Amazigh language.

In an interview aired April 14 on 2M television’s “Confidences de presse” programme, Ramid said: “It takes a strong will to make Arabic a true official language and that’s not the case today.”

“At the university, science subjects are taught in French. Translation centres are limited and the business community as well as some levels of the administration are Frenchised,” said Ramid. “That this case becomes an identity matter is unreasonable, inadmissible and baseless,” he added in reference to Benkirane’s statement on Facebook.

PAM, the largest opposition party, reiterated its “unwavering” position, defending the right of children of the lower classes to benefit from the openness to foreign languages while strengthening the teaching of Morocco’s two official languages.

It slammed arch-foe PJD for delaying a vote on the bill for “narrow electoral agendas and calculations” and blamed Othmani for not straightening out members of his party and his parliamentary majority.

Alami insisted that Arabic is not qualified to be used in science because there are no laboratories for research.

“The Arabisation of science is purely ideological and has nothing to do with common sense,” he said. “It is the workhorse of the Islamist party PJD and the conservatives of the Istiqlal party although their children attended the French mission and studied in France, England, the United States and Canada. They only want to reproduce the same elites and thus block the way for young gifted students from modest families.”

Intellectuals are also divided on the subject. Some say that there is no harm in teaching sciences in foreign languages but others see it as treason.

Writer Mohammed Ennaji raised the question of teaching in French or English correctly.

“Primary education forges identity and the Arabic language must be a priority but there is no harm in using foreign languages when they are more effective for secondary level courses in French and as long as we do not have the means to do otherwise,” Ennaji wrote on Facebook.

“We must do what we are able to do and do well and there is the question: Are we able to give the courses correctly in French or in English?” he asked.

“We must detach the question of identity from that of efficiency, otherwise we will sink into the background to defend an identity that is in any way being affected by social contradictions, poverty, forced exile of young cadres, school dropouts at two or three speeds,” he added, warning the education sector would never come out of its crisis unless the subject must be treated with the usual precautions.

Alami stressed the necessity to sacrifice a generation or two for a transitional period, the first phase of which would be taught in French while the second phase would be followed by learning scientific subjects in English so as to not have to wait for translations of texts into French, which, he said, takes on average five years.

Alami said he was for teaching scientific subjects in English because Moroccan researchers would then be able to communicate and work with researchers and scholars across the world.

“English is the language of the world, the ultimate lingua franca. It is the DNA of the exact sciences,” he said.

Abdelali Oudrhiri, winner of King Faisal Prize for Arabic Language and Literature, likened the position of Moroccan policies towards the Arabic language to “a steering wheel whose move is changed from right to left.

“We have been through 60 years since independence but we could only gain our Moroccanisation. In our fight for Arabic, on the other hand, we have the impression of never having advanced,” Oudrhiri said at a news conference organised by the National Coalition for the Arabic Language.

M’Hamed El Khalifa, lawyer and former minister, said voting on the language bill was tantamount to “treason” to citizens.

“We do not want a society of false guides who do not master any language but a society that masters its Arabic language,” Khalifa said at the news conference.