The Moroccan government is taking steps to replace Arabic with French as the language of instruction for high school science and math, as part of a strategy to orient the country’s education system to the international economy.
In fall 2017, the country’s Ministry of Education encouraged high schoolers to participate in an optional program called “International Baccalaureate.” It allows them to study in French or English for portions of the Moroccan national high school exam, which typically is only given in Arabic.
The program aims to improve students’ mastery of foreign languages, a requirement, according to a Ministry memo, to meet labor market demands, open students to other cultures, and “access the knowledge society and modern technology.”
In Morocco, Arabic and Tamazight (a standardized form of the indigenous Berber dialects) are considered official languages, though they differ significantly from the colloquial versions spoken by most Moroccans. French and increasingly English are widely used as languages of commerce.
A ministry official said the government wanted to expand beyond the small number that currently benefit from the program—about 24,000—and has asked regional directors to try to enroll half math and science students at the start of next year. Science in Arabic may not completely disappear from the curriculum, but for those students specializing in science and math, he noted, “within three years it is plausible that all science education will be in French.”
In theory, the program would introduce multiple foreign languages, but in practice, the expansion implies French. According to press reports, only 48 of about 8,000 students taking the exit exam last year, did so in English.
This discrepancy is a solid reminder of Morocco’s history of French colonialism, which lasted until 1956 and has endured in commercial, cultural and migratory ties. Moroccan science and math teachers all study in French medium at university, while few have a command of English sufficient to teach in the language. As a result, participating students and teachers are up for the challenge when it comes to French. Teaching in French, physics teacher Tariq Benzima says, evoked positive memories of his university experience: “It’s like you are conveying the material in the same way that you studied, in French.”
The North African country’s expansion of the pilot program is a remarkable reversal of a long-standing policy that emphasized Arabic-medium education in primary and secondary school. “Arabization” of Moroccan education had been an official goal since the country’s independence from France, seen as an important step in promoting national solidarity around Arabic and distancing Morocco from its colonial past. Secondary math and science were switched to Arabic from French in the late 1980s.
But in the intervening years, French never lost its primary status in the private sector or university-level sciences, so students face a jarring linguistic transition between high school and higher education. The setup has even become economically regressive: students who cannot afford private schools or French tutoring often repeat grades or just drop out due to language difficulty.
Despite some initial difficulties with language, many students and teachers see the expansion of French medium as a practical—if not necessarily ideal—improvement upon this situation. Physics teacher Jawad Dadaoui lamented the failure of Arabization to promote scientific research in Arabic and the immediate failure of preparing Moroccan researchers to produce research in English, a growing demand of the field. Nonetheless, he noted, “that’s the ideal, but given the [political and financial] reality, we should at least do it in French.”
Morocco’s monarchy has also come to see Arabization as a liability. In 2013, King Mohammed VI delivered a biting critique of the situation, citing language policies as a major reason for the country’s employment crisis. He commissioned a review body to propose a framework for reform, called Vision 2015-2030 which calls for, among other things, “equity and equality in chances of learning languages.” This massive reform effort has included not only the International Baccalaureate but an introduction of foreign languages at earlier grade levels and strengthening basic Arabic reading. The logic is that public school students need stronger language skills to function in globalized labor markets.
Last year’s trial program was widely deemed a success, as 97 percent of those taking exams in French and English passed, compared with the national rate closer to 50 percent for those taking it in Arabic. But this is because the pilot program to date has focused, in one teacher’s words, on the “crème de la crème” of students in public education.
While the high success rate of the International Baccalaureate has shown that a foreign language medium could work for some students, major questions remain about whether its implementation on a broader scale will correct the inequities that made Arabization unpopular.
This is especially the case in more provincial areas of Morocco where students tend to be less comfortable with French. El Houssain Hattan, a Master’s student in chemistry in the Moroccan city of Meknes, grew up in a Tamazight-speaking household in the Middle Atlas Mountains. His degree demands that he write in French and read in English, which makes him ponder his life out loud: “When I think where I came from, I ask how is it that I got here.”
Hattan recalls arriving at his rural primary school utterly unaware of what was occurring in the Arabic classroom. His teacher was severe, prohibiting Tamazight and regularly relying on corporal punishment. He eventually mastered Arabic, but French never stuck. He managed to pass, relying on rote memorization and an arcane curve system. But when he arrived at university, he was expected to take verbatim French notes in a 500-person lecture hall. He repeated a year just trying to adjust to the language. “I still don’t speak French well,” he admits.
But it seems that students who share Hattan’s background are precisely the ones shying away from the International Baccalaureate. According to local officials in Hattan’s native Khenifra province, a major obstacle for the program’s expansion is a lack of demand among students and parents, based on fears the International Bac will lead to lower exit scores, which are key for gaining admission to higher education institutions.
As a result, the International Baccalaureate program has tended to concentrate the very best students in each school. Moroccan public education is already shaped by an unforgiving tracking system: at the end of middle school, high-performing students are directed to focus on science and math, whereas low-performing students are oriented to “letters,” generally seen as a demoralizing course of study for those with little academic promise. In turn, only the best science students have been opting to study in French. In El Kebab, for example, a village nestled in Khenifra’s Middle Atlas foothills, out of 254 entering the second-year high school, 114 study science. Yet the number studying in the International Bac program is only 19.
In fact, the elitism of the program appears a principal reason teachers have enjoyed taking up the International Bac. As Benzina, the physics teacher, explains, the smaller class size (he had 36 in his Arabic physics section) and studiousness of the students made a difference. Though he would essentially translate the lessons between the groups, he could consistently to go deeper and cover more material in International Baccalaureate. “I wouldn’t mind if all my classes were like that,” he commented.
Students have noticed too. Basma Rachidi, a student in El Kebab, remarked on the special atmosphere of her cohort studying in French: “It feels like you are studying the real thing.” Described by her teachers as one of the brightest in the school, the program suited her ambition to become an engineer, a highly prestigious career track in Morocco. But Rachidi also qualified that in her school, the small cohort of participants often described as “full of themselves” did not always get along with other students in the school.
According to Rachidi, at one point during the year, Arabized science students even complained to the administration about International Baccalaureate students speaking in French outside of class.
Hamid Aït Ourram, an English teacher in El Kebab, agreed that the International Baccalaureate students enjoyed more rigorous classes. Concerned that the gap might make students feel bad, he decided to create uniform lessons and quizzes for all the students, but then: “some [Arabic track] students begged me to make their quizzes easier, saying they shouldn’t be held to the same standard,” he said.
Gareth Smail is a PhD student in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and conducted this research as a fellow with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.