On September 5, the official start of the Moroccan academic year, controversy erupted over the high cost of school textbooks. Around the same time, fake images of multiple pages in primary school textbooks spread throughout social media, and caused an uproar over the apparent use of Darija. Darija is the unwritten Moroccan dialectic of Arabic, heavily influenced by Amazigh (Berber), Latin, French, and Spanish.
In reacting to the presence of Darija in textbooks, many blamed the teaching of various languages as a reason for Morocco’s high secondary school drop-out rates. Others claimed it damaged children’s learning and mastery of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). MSA is a standardized, pluricentric version of Arabic used to facilitate communication between dialects and is primarily used in writing and formal speech. It is also one of Morocco’s two official languages, the second being Amazigh.
The government reacted strongly to the public outcry. Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani said that Darija cannot be used in education, arguing the dialect is not recognized by the Moroccan Constitution. Five days later, Minister of Education Said Amzazi held a meeting with other ministry officials to discuss the controversy. On September 26, a statement was finally released to the Maghreb Arab Press (MAP) Forum. Amzazi said that the case of Darija in school books is “permanently closed,” and that “there was no intention to introduce [Darija] into school books.”
While MSA should certainly continue to be the primary language of instruction in Moroccan schools, there is no reason to think that with sufficient and well thought out reform, Darija cannot supplement primary language learning.
According to UNESCO’s Education Today newsletter, language and identity are linked. Research has shown that children who begin their education in their mother tongue continue to perform better than children who have to learn another language. Primary schools in Morocco introduce French, the country’s lingua franca, in their third year of study. Darija, by contrast, is not used at all, despite being the first spoken language in 50 – 75% of Moroccan homes. This exclusion may have last knock-on effects. A 2015 World Economic Forum report ranked Morocco at 101 out of 140 countries in quality of education, with more than half of Moroccan public school students failing to acquire necessary reading and math skills.
Despite Morocco’s linguistic diversity, Darija has never been endorsed, promoted, or included in educational reform plans. The dialect is generally seen as a corrupted, incorrect form of Arabic. It is also often associated with the lower classes. By introducing Darija into the educational curriculum, the possibility exists not only to diminish language, social, and political supremacy, but also to improve Morocco’s educational outcomes as a whole.