Salam Al-Bonjo-Hel…Hola?

I am bilingual. At one point in my life, after living in Curitiba for a year, I spoke three languages fluently.

But language proficiency is lost and although I can fully understand what people are saying when they speak Portuguese, I cannot speak it fluently anymore. It is incredibly similar to Spanish so I could probably get my point across, but it wouldn’t be all Portuguese. It would be Portuñol.

I arrived to Morocco already aware that people spoke French in the country. After visiting South Africa for 2 weeks during the summer, I imagined encountering a similar situation in Morocco with all Moroccans speaking both French and Arabic like South Africans speak both Afrikaans and English. I encountered a completely different situation, however. In Morocco, only 1/3 of the population is actually fluent in French. This statistic is both surprising and puzzling because as soon as you step out of the airport you realize that more things are written in French than in Arabic: Billboards are in French, the names of the roads are in French, maps, menus, information pamphlets, food wrappings, some newspapers and even the names of government buildings qare all in French. Some of these have Arabic translations next to them, but that is the key: translations.

A menu in a restaurant in Casablanca

French exists in the country because the French ruled the kingdom as a protectorate from 1912 to 1956 and the official language was French. This post is not about history, however, it is about the 2/3 of the population who did not learn French.

Let me first add that in the Moroccan educational system, French instruction begins in the 3rd grade. That means that all Moroccans undergo 9 years of French education. You might now ask: Well, Alan, if they go through 9 years of learning how to speak French then how is it possible that 2/3 of the population doesn’t speak French?

Good question. I don’t think anyone has the right answer though.

From personal experience, I can attest that it is possible to study a language for many years and not gain much fluency at all. Interestingly enough, the language that I studied for 4 years in Peru was indeed French. I only understood the reasons why I didn’t really learn French when I arrived to Morocco and began to research the language situation in the country. The first reason is probably the cut off age for rapid learning of languages, which is at around 12 years of age. I began to study French when I was around 11 years old. The Moroccans however, begin learning French in 3rd grade which corresponds to 8 or 9 years of age. This could not be the reason why they don’t master the language, but it could partially explain why it was harder for me to learn it. (Although I refuse to use that as an excuse because I think that it makes me look helpless).

Now let’s take into account the context in which we learnt French. When I began learning French, it wasn’t really because I was super interested. I had three choices: French, art class or music class. I hated the art teachers and I never wanted to go back to music class so I quickly ran out of options. Given that I was obliged to take one of the courses, French was sort of imposed on me. The Moroccans feel the same way. In fact, when I was carrying out interviews about people’s opinions on French, everyone seemed to agree that they were forced to learn French and that they did not like that.

You know that class that you hate, but you know you have to take because it is part of the requirements? Wouldn’t you agree that you put less effort into those courses (unless they are absolutely critical like Calc I, II & III)? It is expected, when we enjoy doing something we are happy to put more effort and that extra effort comes naturally unlike with those tasks that we hate. I didn’t put too much effort into my French classes to be honest. I knew the material because I was that sort of student, but I didn’t really learn it. It was that typical situation of “memorizing without learning.” Moreover, when I was given the opportunity to move from beginner French to Advanced French I refused because it meant that I had to study during the summer. Talk about stupid decisions.

That seems to be one of the reasons behind that lack of fluency within Moroccan students. They are lazy.

Let’s not be too quick to put all the blame on the students however. The teachers are also at fault. Plenty of government reports and interviews with students revealed to me that French public school teachers tend not to be the most devoted to their jobs. In fact one PhD candidate whom I interviewed told me that in his French classes there were students… “Firing off some knuckle-children.”

Clearly, the fact that students were “slapping the salami” in class shows that the teachers didn’t really care about what was going on. Of course, this story alone is not representative of the state of the kingdom, but as Al Jazeera reports, the government has already acknowledged the lack of skills of the public school teachers.

Now ask yourself the following question: If no one had ever encouraged you, would you have still achieved everything that you have achieved so far? No, right?

Everyone needs encouragement. For example, during B-Term of freshman year I was ready to drop everything. Culture shock hit me like an avalanche and everything went downhill from there.  Multiple calls with my parents eventually succeeded in convincing me that I could pull through (I knew that I could since I had dealt with Culture Shock several times before, but this time it was especially bad).

My travel history in Morocco according to Google Maps. At the far right is Ourzazate – a city at the edge of the Sahara desert.

Yet after taking all of this into consideration, I was still left wondering: How is it possible for someone not to learn a language that is present absolutely everywhere? And I mean everywhere. I traveled all the way up to Tangier and all the way down to Sidi Ifni. The only place where I found LESS French was in the rural Amazigh villages beyond the outskirts of Sidi Ifni. I am talking about a place where there is no running water and electricity was brought over about one or two years ago. This is in a region where the government has made little to no investment – they basically forgot that it exists. There’s nothing but dry land and millions of cactus. You look around and you wonder why anyone would want to live in a place like that.


A true Southern Moroccan Amazigh, Mohammed invited us over to his house to have the best tajine I had during this entire trip.

On a side note, Glenn and I pondered on this question for quite some time while we were up there in the Dar Si Hmad fog research station. Maybe we could never appreciate it because we have lived in a first world country and the convenience of having everything at hand is a blessing. But we did appreciate the extreme peace that existed in these mountains. Perhaps that is the reason why Mohammed would choose to stay there for the rest of his life instead of moving to the city. I could not live in a place like that though. Maybe I could retire to a self-sustaining house in the Swiss Alps with a view of the mountains, but never into the middle of the desert.

Anyways, about the languages, to this day I still cannot answer why 2/3 of the population are not fluent in French. I think that the issue is just not that simple. There are a multiplicity of reasons why this happened. Maybe, that refusal to do something is stronger than I thought. Although that would mean that these people are also consciously refusing the opportunity to find well-paying jobs because it is a well-known fact all around Morocco that French is absolutely necessary for obtaining a good job.

But I just can’t convince myself that anyone would be stupid enough to realize that his future depends on learning a language and not do anything to ensure that he learns it. Even if the educational system was so bad that it would be impossible to learn anything, the language is still spoken in the streets; It seems that every street vendor speaks French. I am convinced that if a young Moroccan truly wanted to learn French, regardless of his economic situation, he could do it.

The only possible explanations that I am left with are: this is a third world country and people are hoping that someone will just hand them what they need (like in Argentina with the government of Cristina de Kirchner) or people simply don’t care enough to help themselves. Let’s be honest for a moment. No one will decide not to learn French just because it was the language of the colonizers. The people who lived during the time of the protectorate are dead. The young generations don’t really care about culture, they just care about money. This is absolutely true. Let’s not fool ourselves again. Few are the occasions where a young person will forfeit personal gain in order to protect the culture of the country. Give me the the choice between History & Geography classes and Economics classes and I will always choose economics. In the words of a Moroccan: “Culture is nice, but what can I buy with culture?”

A “silent beggar” in the streets of Fes.

After 6 weeks of living in the country, it would seem to me that maybe people are actually waiting to receive. I am not going to claim that I know what being a poor Moroccan is like. I read For Bread Alone by Mohammed Choukri, but I didn’t live it. What I can say is that begging, which is what most Moroccan kids in the streets seem to do, does not get anyone anywhere. Except that it might. Given that there are so many tourists in this country and that prices here are extremely low (A full meal costs US$ 5 in average – approx. 50DH) many Moroccans might find themselves living quite well just from the tips that tourists hand them. Think about it: A tourist is likely to hand a kid a 5DH coin or maybe a 10DH coin. The kid just needs 4 more of those and he can eat just as well as I do. That means that all he has to do is run around the streets until he bumps into another tourist. If he doesn’t, he can still get some left overs with those 5DH. Why waste time in school learning anything? After all what they say might be true: When you give them money, you only encourage them to keep begging rather than going to school or finding a job. We are naturally lazy. Receiving money with no effort is always more attractive than working 8 hours a day.

On a last note, it should also be pointed out that one of the duties of every Muslim is the Zakat (paying alms to the poor).  So it does not necessarily need to be a tourist.

In the end, why is it that only 1/3 of the population speak fluent French? I would like to believe that it is due to a lack of encouragement from school and because of the poor mentality of “I am being forced to learn French and I don’t like being forced to do anything so I won’t learn it.” I had the encouragement, but I also had that mentality when I was learning French and now I find myself regretting that decision (since I encounter so many opportunities to speak French) just like most Moroccans who hit their heads against a glass ceiling with the words “French speakers only” written all over. I do not want to believe that maybe the poor have accepted their fate and ceased their efforts to obtain a better living. Visiting the poor villages outside of Sidi Ifni encouraged me not to believe in this idea because the villagers with whom I talked to there seemed extremely intent on having their children learn French and English one way or another so that they could have the opportunity to escape poverty. I want to believe that people are not about to commit the same stupid mistake that I made…

I encourage you to draw your own conclusions, and get yourself learning a second or third language.


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