Morocco: Teaching “Berber” in Schools

Tifinagh in use

Tifinagh in use

A BBC News piece on the teaching of “Berber” languages in Morocco has got the blogoma talking.  The article, which outlines the educational options for learning and studying the language, and adds insight into the development of the Tifinagh alphabet, prompted a variety of posts.  The View from Fez, an expat blog, asked the question “could Berber replace Arabic as official Moroccan language?”  The blogger's answer?

The simple answer is no, Amazigh will never replace Arabic, but that does not stop people calling for it to happen. In a recent BBC interview, Abullah Aourik, an artist and publisher of a magazine in Amazigh, said that he wanted to see Berber replace Arabic as the official language of the country.

The blogger noted, however, that Amazigh languages are already counted among the official languages of several neighboring countries, including Algeria.

Reading Morocco, a blog which focuses on Moroccan literature, news, and blogs, was quick to criticize the article:

I have a few problems with the premise of the article(as usual). I am not so quick to draw a line between Berbers and Arabs when so much of Moroccan history has been about the mixture of these two ” identities,” and also because i feel as if secular and Christian missionary motives (which both tend to be Islamophobic) like sticking their finger in this cultural and religious “rift.”

‘Aqoul‘s response was that of criticism as well:

First, if there was a real and genuine desire to have a written form of Berber languages that would in fact have some impact on illiteracy, and real reach beyond a few faddish academics and cultural activists, they would have adopted either the Latin alphabet, or if they wanted to go for real historical authenticity, adopted the form of Arabic script that late Medieval and early Modern Chleuh Berbers used to write Chleuh (Tachelhite).

Kal, a commenter on the post (and the blogger behind The Moor Next Door), shares anecdotes heard in rural Morocco as to the teaching of Tifinagh:

If one talks to these kids coming from the illiterate villages in the mountains and south, it has been my experience that they are quite weary of official attempts to educate them in Tamazight; why not teach them to read and write in a language they can use first, rather than marring them down with a language that doesn't take them anywhere beyond where they're already at? I have heard multiple people from the Sousse describe the attempt to teach Tamazight and promote Tifinagh as a “conspiracy” to keep already debilitated Berber communities as they are. Whatever the validity of that, there is also a hostility to towards standardization, which means rolling over the languages of childhood and daily life towards a dubious and poorly defined end.

For those interested, a fascinating read on the subject is Katherine E. Hoffman's We Share Walls: Language, Land, and Gender in Berber Morocco.


  • Kalid M

    Morocco is Amazigh, there is no denial. In order to regain our self esteem and be in peace with ourselves as a nation, we should recognize and revalorize our roots and our heritage. For centuries, we aspired to be Arabs because of our Muslim faith. All Moroccan kids should learn some rudiments of Berber, to anchor our identity where it belongs. The rest of the curriculum should be in an established Lingua Franca, Arabic or French, Ryadh or Paris, I really don’t care, they’re both foreign. We should promote the art and literature in Amazigh, acknowledge the Berber contribution to the Moroccan nation. The Berber culture should recuperate the Moroccan mainstream psyche and trend s in a seamless manner, avoid the yougoslav experience . Except for an insignificant minority arabo-andalus, the average Moroccan views the Berber thing with respect. The Arab Renaissance never took hold and Jamal Abdelnasser has never been a hero in this land. The only way to avoid the rift is to generalize its teaching. Chleuh from the Middle Atlas born in Fes Darijarabophone.

    Thanks Jilian!

  • Jillian, quick note, the Kat commntator was actually Kal (of The Moor Next Door), he just made a typo. I’ll correct it on the post.

    As for a Berber fellow above, fine sentiments, impossible to achieve. Moroccan state lacks the resources to achieve even core education, never mind adding on a language (or languages) that the Derridja speaking majority will at best regard as a tedious waste of time. Teaching berber as a language on a mass basis simply is not going to work.

    Raising the visibility and status of Berber contribution to Morocco and Maghrebine development, however is achievable and realistic.

    • Oh, too funny! I’ll correct it as well.

      And incidentally, I agree – the goal should be to raise the visibility of Amazigh achievements. Teaching the language as anything more than an elective course in schools serves no real purpose.

      • Indeed, electives are fine, but in an educational system with scarce resources, better to focus on achievable goals.

      • BTW, I noted your comment on one of the linked blogs re doing away with French.

        There is a very simple and direct reason why this will not be done (and why it would fail badly): economic motivation. French is and will be the language of modern economic commerce in Morocco. Upwards of 60 percent of international exchanges are with francophone countries, and the language of trade with them is French.

        This is neither good nor bad, it just is. Few countries in the world get to live in their own language cocoon – as the Americans do.

        For all Moroccans and Maghrebines with international aspirations (or even local aspirations relative to the modern economy), French is sine qua non. Whatever one’s feelings about that, it is not going to change, the inertia and weight of international echanges (European and African) ensure that.

        • My comment, so the readers can know, was “better to do away with French.”

          I realize this is unrealistic, however, the fact that plenty of Moroccans can barely write a complete language is problematic. Your statement about the utility of French for Moroccans with international aspirations, of course, is also true.

          That said, those Moroccans with any desire to leave the Francophone world will suffer for their inability to write Arabic or English properly (lest you chide me for that remark, I’ve seen plenty of it from my middle class students who, in a desire to appear more cosmopolitan, drop their Arabic entirely…while their English is never good enough to begin with).

          All that in mind, of course, ditching French is not the solution – that lies somewhere in educational reform.

  • Kalid M

    Jilian and Lounsbury,

    We all know a language are a vehicle for ideas, values and nationalism. Teaching in different languages in selective areas will deepen the differences amongst citizens. Those schools become hotbed for grievances,separatism and lead to strife, Sri Lanka, Yougoslavia, South Thailand are vivid examples.
    The darija public in general need to be included (even at a minimum level) with “la chose berbere”.

  • Kalid

    Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Morocco uniquely of the MENA countries has a fairly solid “real” history (that is pre colonial something like Morocco existed in roughly the modern geography).

    I seriously doubt that now a separatist Berber movement would arise.

    That being said, it obviously is one reason the Moroccan state in the Hassan II era went with the Arabophone elite’s preference re language. A real potential in the Rif existed.

    I don’t quite follow your deridja in public comment.

    (PS: Yougoslavia is not an example of a language driven ethnic conflict, the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks are really all the same language speakers.)

  • Mohamed

    The lounsbury,

    Morocco is occupied en and is divided by the european colonialists. Morocco has never had an arabic language among the poeple. The arabic language was only used by the berber aristocrats. Morocco has a berber population.
    DNA evidence
    Old genetic studies along with historians such as Gabriel Camps and Charles-André Julien lend support to the idea that the bulk of modern Northwest Africans irrespective of language are descended from Berbers whom according to the studies originated from the Middle East. A modern study however shows a clear genetic difference between “Berbers” (defined as the Berber speaking population) and “Arabs” (defined as the Arabic speaking population in North Africa), these latter subjects “probably correspond to a heterogeneous group representing various ethnicities”.

  • Rachid

    I am a little bit surprised by the general tone of this thread…
    1-whether you admit or not the term “berber” tossed around back and forth has always been and will remain a problematic term to use to refer to the the populations in question.
    2-whether people can have access to education in their first language seems to be a matter of basic rights not really a luxury as some of the points of view expressed here seem to suggest. While many Tamazight/Tarifit/Tachelhit speakers do communicate in Darija, one cannot simply deny the fact that there are still tons of people who do not speak any form of Arabic whatsoever—take a day trip up the mountains and double check— once you have done that, come back and tell me if you still think having the right to access to infomation in your mother’s language is still too much to ask.
    3-if the issue is with the alphabet chosen to write the Amazigh language(s), please say so– that is a differenet issue from whether the language itself should be taught or not…
    4-until further notice education in Morocco is overwhelmingly public–it’s a service to all citizens regardless of their backgrounds and should be provided in any languages spoken in the country—if the government is unable to carry it’s mission of educating its citizens, they should say so and get out of the way and let some in the private sector step in– the case of Tamazight is quite interesting. for the longest time Moroccans were told it’s impossible to teach because of the financial burden it would create while at the same time, associations and NGOs were harassed if they dared teach it….
    alas politics were playing a huge part in what was going on…
    and let’s face it all over North Africa whether we like it or not to not know Tamazight deprives you of the ability to know your own past and robs you of the ability to understand countless names of places you live in, mountains you look at, valleys you travel through,…
    Morocco has to recognize that it’s linguistic diversity is not a handicap; it’s actually a huge asset and no Moroccan is complete without all these elements…time to move on beyond the conflicts and misinformation of old days and embrace the differences that make Morocco such a vibrant place

  • Mohamed


    It is correct what you have here mentioned.

  • hasan

    Arab morocans do not respect the languge any way .we have to teach this languge to our kids ,dos not mater if arab peopel likes it or not is our heritag and we stick with it .thankyou

  • wanda smith

    When I read some comments, I was really surprised that some people are still stuck on the Berber-Arab issue. This deal was created by France; to separate the society, was a way to conquer the people of Morocco, and some people really fell for it.
    Common sense: should we run a DNA test on over 30,000,000 people to see who is 8000 BC years old, who is 2500 BC years old, and who is 1400 years AC to prove who is the oldest, who is the original people of Morocco, who is Arab, who is Berber, who is Phoenician…etc, or should we simply say: vive le Maroc.
    As we all know, languages are human inventions, and most of the languages today are borrowed from each other and became the languages we know today. The letters of Amazigh and the old Berber language have a lot of similarity of ancient languages in the Middle East; so who knows if our ancestors came from the same area in different eras. It really does not matter; what matter is we are Moroccan, and Morocco is a mixture of different ethnic groups. This diversity what makes Morocco beautiful, and diversity is a good thing.
    I do not see anything wrong with teaching the language of our ancestors (Amazigh, Tashalhit…), but is this going to help the economy and help solve illiteracy and other problems in Morocco? I remember when I graduated from high school in Morocco; I had to struggle with three languages, and now that some schools are teaching Tamazight, I wonder how many students are going to struggle too.
    I think what we need to teach in schools is technology and other useful things that will help Moroccans keep up with the economy of the world. After all, it is an information and technology era, and the language of economy is English. Additionally, in order to better the Moroccan society is to try get away from the tribal mentality(I am Berber, I am Arab, really no one cares) and focus on the solutions that will help the Moroccan people better their lives, fight illiteracy, and other social problems.
    Separatism is very dangerous and sometimes destroys societies Morocco is a beautiful country; It has its problems just like any other countries, so for those who love Morocco, and proud to be Moroccans, focus your energy on fixing the big problems. Nobody is going to take away the fact that our heritage is Berber-Arab and others. When one travels overseas, he/ she is considered Moroccan, period.

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