Why do young Moroccans prefer English to French?

Dsince his independence in 1956, Morocco maintains connections strong diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with France. Anchoring in the Francophonie has long seemed obvious, an unsurpassable horizon. Without being an official language of the country, French is the first foreign language of Moroccan schoolchildren and the privileged language of university education, can be read on the fronts of private and public buildings, and its use is widely diffused in the administrations and the business world.

However, attachment to the French language is disintegrating among some Moroccans, especially the youngest. A study of the British Council published in the spring of 2021 reveals that a majority of young people would be in favor of replacing French with English. Thus 40% of young Moroccans would prefer to learn English, against only 10% for French. A growing number of young people say they are more comfortable and prefer English, both in daily interactions and for their academic career. At the same time, the English-language shelves of bookstores grew to the detriment of French-language literature and writings.

To understand the reasons for the detachment of young Moroccans from French in favor of English, we conducted focus groups with first-year students from a business school. The groups were composed in such a way as to reflect the diversity of the students in terms of social background (students from the most affluent classes and scholarship students) and fluency in French and English (some students displaying a particular appetite for either of the two languages).

The expression of young people reveals an ambivalent relationship to the French language. We identify three social and political motives for their preference for English:

  • a pragmatic and functional relationship between young people and the foreign language;
  • a transformation of the elites;
  • management of the language stigma among the working classes.

English, the language of global opportunities

Young Moroccans, for whom Arabic remains the overwhelming majority of their first language of use, adopt a pragmatic reasoning in “costs/benefits” concerning their foreign language of use. They arbitrate in particular between the perceived difficulty of learning the language and the opportunities it offers in terms of knowledge, openness to the world, international mobility and professional opportunities.

21st Century Morocco Podcast: The shift to English in Morocco.

In this “costs/benefits” match, English is increasingly winning out over French in the minds of young Moroccans.

First, because English is perceived as accessible and easy to learn, in particular thanks to the more widely available cultural content in this language. Netflix, YouTube and social media are as much a means of entertainment as they are a tool for language learning. Then, because English is considered the international language which opens the widest opportunities and horizons for study, travel, business and exchanges with people from all over the world.

Conversely, French is described as a language which, on the one hand, is difficult to learn and, on the other hand, locks in an almost exclusive link with France and a few rare French-speaking countries in Europe and Africa. Out of pragmatism and utilitarianism, many young Moroccans do not bother to master a language that seems less desirable to them because less promising opportunities.

English, the language of the new elites

The Moroccan elites are traditionally considered French-speaking and Francophile. The success of French educational establishments, known as french missionand the socio-economic weight of the winners of the French Grandes Ecoles attest to this.

But this elite also feels betrayed and turns away from a partner who has multiplied the signs of enmity. The first dates back to the Guéant law which, in 2011, prohibited access to employment in France for young foreign graduates of French Grandes Ecoles and universities. If the law was repealed a year later after the return of the left to power, the narcissistic wound of the Moroccan elites remained. Moreover, the irresistible progression of xenophobic discourse carried by the extreme right and, more recently, the drastic drop in number of French visas granted to Moroccan nationals have revived the feeling of rejection and the questions of the Moroccan elites as to their privileged relationship with France.

At the same time, Morocco has seen the emergence of a new, more English-speaking elite, trained on the benches of American, Canadian and British universities. This promotes a more intense use of English in business and academic circles and the strengthening of political and economic ties with the Anglo-Saxon world.

The kingdom has undertaken a policy of diversifying its political and commercial partnerships. France is no longer perceived as the privileged economic partner and the dream destination for young Moroccans to pursue their studies. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of Moroccan students abroad grew by 16% in Canada, 35% in Germany, 179% in Ukraine, and only 3% in France. Moroccan universities participate in this policy of diversification. They multiplied the English courses and exchange programs with non-French-speaking universities.

In such a way that French is no longer perceived by young people as the language of academic and professional success.

Stigma management: the revenge of the working classes

In Morocco, mastering the French language has turned into social and class markeras the quality of language teaching has deteriorated in public schools.

A substantial part of young people from the working classes carry their poor command of French as a stigma, that is to say a social attribute aimed at devaluing certain categories of the population.

A substantial part of young people from the working classes carry their weak command of French as a stigmathat is to say a social attribute aimed at devaluing certain categories of the population who are supposed to deviate from the dominant social norm, as described by the American sociologist Erving Goffman.

Among young people from the working classes, the “shift to English” is precisely about managing the stigma. Failing to master the social norm of the elites, they distance themselves even further from it and reverse the stigma through their behavior and in their discourse. The most moderate use English because they feel more at ease in this language and to avoid mistakes in French that reveal their stigma. The most radical make it a question of identity and speak of a break with the old colonial language. For the latter, the Francophonie of Morocco is only the tail of the comet of the colonial period. They turn away from it and work to create a new dominant norm.

This transformation in the use of the language questions the future of economic, political, educational and cultural ties between Morocco and France. Beyond Morocco, she questions the role of the Francophonie as a tool of influence for France.

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