Revitalizing Tamazight: The role of language education policies in Morocco
By Silvia Quattrini, North Africa Manager and language rights focal point
Abdelaziz Khellada is a primary school teacher from Morocco. He spent most his life considering himself Arab, but when his brother passed away in prison for a land dispute, at the age of 42 he reclaimed his true ethnic identity, Amazigh.
Imazighen are people indigenous to North Africa whose languages, collectively known as Tamazight, were once spoken from the Canary Islands to Western Egypt (a region they call Tamazgha). Tamazight has survived centuries of marginalization, assimilation and even prohibition. In December 2022, I met with language policy experts and practitioners in Morocco to get their perspectives on the advancements and obstacles in the implementation of Tamazight education policies so far.
Though Abdelaziz, his brothers and wife all have Arabic names, his children have Amazigh names, attesting to an ongoing trend of linguistic and cultural revitalisation. When Abdelaziz began outwardly identifying as Amazigh, he decided to learn its alphabet, Tifinagh, having spoken the language his entire life.
Though it’s common to see Tamazight signage in larger cities, in Ouaouizeght, Abdelaziz’s rural hometown, just two Tamazight signs exist: one for an administrative office, written by Abdelaziz himself, and another for the middle school. Tamazight teaching in Morocco stops in primary school, so despite its bilingual appearance, this sign is the only Tamazight on offer at the school.
Once Abdelaziz had taught himself to read and write in Tamazight and completed a 6-month course in Marrakech, he obtained the degree to become a teacher. But since no Tamazight education is offered in Ouaouizeght, he works in another village, Tilouguite, during the week. He makes the 45-kilometre journey home to his family every Friday. His daughter Arines, just started primary school in Ouaouizeght and is learning French and Arabic, only practising Tamazight at home with her parents and younger brother.
Even before the officialization of the language in 2011, Tamazight was being gradually introduced in hundreds of primary schools all over Morocco. But long-held hopes that officialization would lead to Tamazight teaching in all primary schools remain unfulfilled. Mustapha Marouane, researcher in Amazigh language and culture, told me that although in 2010 550,000 students were taught in Tamazight, by 2022 this dropped to around 350,000. This number, Marouane tells me, has not grown since.
Agadir University was the first to offer degrees in Tamazight in 2006. Many others then followed, in Oujda, Nador, Rabat, Casablanca, Aïn Chock and Fès. Training centres for teachers exist in Tangier, Casablanca, Marrakech, Agadir and Nador. Since 2011, there has been a degree to become a Tamazight teacher through a course on Tamazight and didactics. But in 2022, policy began obliging Tamazight teachers to also pass exams in Arabic and French as well as sciences and mathematics. Yet those teaching Arabic and French are not obliged to learn Tamazight, creating an implied but evident hierarchisation. This policy also resulted in some teachers qualifying after only 45 days of training in Tamazight, raising concerns about the quality of instruction. According to most commentators, this is due to a lack of political will.
These ups and downs of Tamazight implementation in education are mirrored at the national level. When Morocco officialized Tamazight alongside Arabic as a national language, it also promised a law that would define the implementation of Tamazight and its integration into education and public life. That law took a further eight years to see the light of day. Even now, although each government ministry is required to issue a conceptual note detailing how it will implement Tamazight in its domain, so far not one has issued such a note, nor has the promised National Council of Moroccan Languages and Culture been instated
This story repeats itself across sectors: there are professional communication courses in Tamazight, but with 60 participants per class, how effective can they be? ‘In 2022, 80 legal assistants were recruited for tribunals who speak the three varieties of Tamazight. I find this extremely interesting, but judges also should have at least a basic understanding’, said Mustapha Sghir of the Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture (IRCAM).
IRCAM has overseen the standardization of Tamazight and creates books and educational materials. He showed me the system used in their books. The three main Amazigh variants (djouilet) in Morocco, are identified with three colours: blue for Tarifit, the northern variant; green for Tamazight, the central variant; and yellow for Tachlahit, the southern one. Students begin studying their local variant and by the sixth year all read the same texts.
Tamazight education requires Tamazight-speaking teachers. But, as Sghir tells me: ‘the teacher must do 30 hours per week but only has three hours of Tamazight per class, which means that he has to cover eight different classes. This makes up hundreds of students since there are between 30 and 40 students per class… Especially in the rural areas, he has to move around between different schools to cover his hour obligations, making what we call a “nomad teacher”.’ Conditions like these hardly incentivize teachers to join up. Indeed, when Tamazight degrees first became available ‘there was enthusiasm but, after a while, as they saw there was no available job, many students preferred to go and do other masters.’
In April 2021, the Moroccan Ministry of Education announced the recruitment of 400 Tamazight teachers over three years. With estimates indicating that 12,000 teachers would be required to cover the needs of Morocco’s 4.5 million primary school students, this shows a will to increase existing human resources. However, the will must match the needs if Tamazight is to meaningfully become a part of Morocco’s education system.
Nevertheless, ‘by comparing Morocco to other countries in North Africa or other countries with indigenous peoples, we have done a lot of things in terms of planning. We have standardized the language, we have an alphabet, even at the technology level, we have bilingual dictionaries with French, Arabic, etc. we have translations, translation software and textbooks. The IRCAM has produced booklets and manuals for the first and second cycle[s of education], up to the baccalaureate, but this is not enough, Tamazight and the Amazighs deserve to have their full rights on their lands’, says Mustapha Marouane.
So why has progress proved so unsteady? For Marouane, ‘we have all the material but what is missing is the will. Ideology and prejudices, preconceived ideas for centuries have had an impact on decision makers and communities themselves. We were told at school for years and years that speaking Tamazight brings us back to division, it leads us to a torn society.’
I asked him what must be done: ‘it takes years to change this vision, and it must be done at the level of the community itself with discussion and awareness raising. We have access to social networks, radio, television, international organizations. Even with teaching, things change little by little; if I teach well and I am well integrated, it gives you a model in terms of behaviour. It’s not just a language and mere symbolism, it’s much more than that, it’s about values. Our ancestors resisted for thousands of years, we have to do only a little of what they did. Even if they were illiterate, they resisted much and we have a duty to transmit, it goes beyond teaching. We also have an obligation to contribute based on our expertise and our mission, we cannot just claim or complain or ask others to do things at our place.’
Mustapha Sghir told me that ‘there are people who regularly practice Tamazight especially in rural areas, but urbanization is a threat for the language. I speak Tamazight to my daughter at home, but the environment will influence her more as I only spend a couple of hours with her.’ Mustapha Marouane agreed that ‘the loss happens more at the city level and not at the rural level where the language is still spoken.’ As Morocco’s urban population steadily grows, there are fears that Tamazight is becoming more endangered, despite the strength of Amazigh identity in general.
Despite the obstacles along the way, the implementation of the Amazigh language policy in Morocco remains an interesting example in the African landscape. If the right human and financial resources are allocated, the revitalisation of the Amazigh language could become a reference point not just for its neighbouring countries, as is often already acknowledged, but also across the African continent at large. The government of Morocco should clear the way for Tamazight to be meaningfully implemented in its education system and in all areas of public life. The will of the activists and experts, those I met with and the many others like them, should be matched by the state.
Photo: Mr Khellada with his children in the mountains of Middle Atlas. December 2022. Courtesy of Silvia Quattrini/MRG.
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