Of the many indicators used to measure a country’s prospects for development, perhaps the most overlooked is that of language. Across the world, governments looking to secure competitive advantage are facing critical decisions about linguistic policies, nowhere more so than in Morocco.
Morocco has been moving fast, last year climbing 21 places in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” rankings. The strategically-located Kingdom has displayed year-on-year growth since the global financial crisis. Nevertheless, to sustain economic progress in the long term, French-speaking Morocco will continue to rely on foreign direct investment, cheques that are written largely in English.
While there is much chatter about the business growth of Mandarin Chinese and Hindi, the use of English also remains on the rise. Globally as many as 750 million people have or are currently learning English as a foreign language – that’s nearly 1 out of every 4 people on earth. For developing countries like Morocco, adopting English is not an insurmountable challenge. Rwanda and Cameroon are just two that are making concerted efforts to expand its use.
But it is easy to see from Morocco’s history why this is more complex than it looks. The native language was Berber; the subsequent Arab conquest brought an almost comprehensive Arabisation. Successive periods of foreign influence also left their linguistic mark. Today the situation is such that Arabic is the official language, followed by Berber, French and Spanish. English occupies the fifth position.
And while Arabic and French are both beautiful languages, English is increasingly the lingua franca of international business. China, whose economy props up that of the world, is investing heavily in the teaching of English. English now dominates the digital, tourist and economic vocabulary. Even French, despite its historical predominance and 220 million speakers across the globe, is now being left behind. Seven of the ten worst-developed countries ranked by the United Nations Development Programme are French-speaking African states.
In Morocco, there is appetite for change. In 2002, reforms stipulated that English will be taught in all public schools, however, despite these moves, the numbers of Anglophone Moroccans remain low. According to a 2011 report compiled for the British Council, 14% of the population speak English, though 85% of Moroccans “consider speaking English as beneficial for the country”.
Casablanca’s corniche, Aïn Diab, now has the gleaming $2billion beachfront ‘Morocco Mall’ telling customers it is “All for You” in English. Nevertheless, French continues to complement Arabic as the language of written expression and academia. When it comes to communicating on the world stage, Morocco remains enveloped in a Francophone cocoon.
Not endorsing English works for regional economic powerhouses like Qatar and Saudi Arabia that continue to interact successfully on the world stage through Arabic. However, for countries lower on natural resources like Morocco, the need to adapt to the global market is perhaps more clear.
Like in other African countries that have altered their language policies, the impetus for change should come from the government. Given that English skills are a primary tool in the global economy, the government must support its teaching. At present, public schools only teach English from the age of 14; this could be made earlier so students complete schooling with a better level of English. The Government could also endorse more universities like Morocco’s globally renowned Al Akhawayn University, where English is the medium of study. More investment needs to be made in the education and training of English. At present the government only pays for half of its employees who request training in English. At the national level, the government could increase the time allocated to English television and radio programmes.
The government has singled out airfreight, financial services, tourism and aeronautic sectors for growth, where Morocco has competitive advantages. These sectors require a working knowledge of English, with recent studies showing over 90% of jobs require English as at least a second-language. By equipping young Moroccans with these skills, it will open up jobs and raise living standards.
To continue to drive development it is linguistic, as much as macro and micro economic policy that should be on the agenda for policy-makers, in Morocco as other countries around the world.