French is no longer de rigueur

April 24, 1998

MOROCCAN universities are bracing themselves for a major language shake-up. This is taking place at a time when higher education is in dire straits, largely because of the hasty language policies adopted soon after France conceded independence to Morocco in 1956.

For more than 40 years now, two opposing interests have clashed, each having its own view of how higher education should be run. The nationalists advocate immediate implementation of Arabisation; the moderates believe that although Arabisation is desirable in the long run, French should be kept as an essential tool for scientific and technological advancement.

For the Moroccan elite, the age-old debate about whether to promote Arabic or French as the language of education and research seems to have become obsolete. Their answer to the controversy surrounding this issue is simply "English".

French has hitherto managed to impose itself (much to the dismay of the advocates of Arabisation) in many of the key sectors such as administration, the mass media and higher education. The langue de Moli re is even used as a mother tongue in many well-off homes inside the country.

A mastery of French is also essential for securing a good job and for getting on in life, and it remains a must for people who hope to hold leading positions in government. Hence the status of French as an official language in Morocco.

However, this situation is changing gradually. The very fact that French enjoys such a prestigious position - although it is used by only a fraction of a tiny literate population - has played, paradoxically, into the hands of the English language.

The major factor here is that the labour market, which used to recruit graduates, especially those who had received their education exclusively in French, has become saturated.

The effects of globalisation and the dominance of English as the language of business, information and high technology has also contributed to the decline in the popularity of French. In state universities and an increasing number of private instituts d'etudes superieurs, the balance is tilting towards English as a medium of instruction.

The clearest manifestation of this fresh taste for the language of Shakespeare is the recent establishment of al-Akhawayn University - the first all English-language private higher education institution in the country.

For the huge majority of school-leavers who cannot afford such a luxury - the fees to get into al-Akhawayn compare with those charged by many British and United States universities - English remains the best way out of the crisis of graduate unemployment. This explains why there is an alarming increase in the number of school-leavers who take up English as a major subject or as a medium to read chemistry or biology, for example. As a result, many departments of English are finding it hard to cope.

In the business sector, more and more companies are requiring fluency in all three languages (Arabic, French and English) from their prospective employees, but it is really English they insist on. Certain stock exchange transactions, which used to be processed strictly in French, are now being dealt with exclusively in English.

The young manager of a private higher education institution said that people who fail to master English in the next ten years will be handicapped.

Even Lakhdar Ghazal, a staunch proponent of Arabisation, has conceded that we should make use of French as a langue complementaire to make up for the lacunae in Arabic, and to use English as a langue auxiliaire to remedy the deficiencies of French.

The French are only too aware of this new development. Eager to preserve le monde de la francophonie, President Jacques Chirac recently assembled representatives from 48 francophone countries in Hanoi. The summit was used by the French president as a platform to sound the alarm over the dangers facing la francophonie.

The meeting was marked by the absence of the Democratic Republic of Zaire (the former Congo), which has deserted the French-speaking camp, branding France's relations with French-speaking countries as "neo-colonialist" - a severe blow to the already ailing francophonie.

President Chirac has promised to pump huge sums into the economies of many of the member states with a view to promoting French language and culture. In Morocco alone, 11 new French lycees are being set up. Within state universities, the departments of French, which have seen funding from Centres Culturels Francais frozen for the past decade, have been told that financial support is forthcoming.

There is no denying that the linguistic map of Morocco is being redrawn. The French sense that they are losing the linguistic tug-of-war, but are emergency summits and financial aid enough to avert a possible demise of la francophonie?

It all depends on how well French institutions and francophone universities in Morocco and elsewhere can hold out against the determined onslaught of the Anglo-Saxon linguistic and cultural heavyweight.

Hassan Bouzidi lectures in the department of English at the University of Agadir, Morocco.

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