More than 18 years after the integration of Tamazight, the language of the Amazigh people, into Morocco’s education system, teaching the language at schools and universities still faces great challenges. The most important of those is the lack of programs and courses available in Tamazight, which is the standardized version of the many Amazigh dialects.
An initial enthusiasm for Amazigh studies programs in universities has waned in recent years, in part because of poor prospects for graduates. But now academics and activists are leading a new push to teach Tamazight, and the education minister has indicated his support.
“Amazigh studies started recently compared to other disciplines,” said Lahcen Amekrane, a professor at the Amazigh studies department at Hassan II University of Casablanca. “However, the experience is more than 14 years old today and it is necessary to think about enabling Moroccan students to study this major at new universities.”
Amekrane also stressed the importance of “expanding the university offer of Amazigh studies to include other higher education institutions that have not yet opened Amazigh courses.” (See a related article, “The Berber Language: Officially Recognized, Unofficially Marginalized?”)
Constitutional Adoption of Tamazight
Morocco officially began to pay attention to the Amazigh language in 2003, after the establishment of the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture aimed at preserving and promoting Amazigh culture. After a royal arbitration, the Tifinagh script was adopted, settling a controversy over the alphabet for written Tamazight, which for centuries remained a purely oral language. The language was also incorporated into Morocco’s primary school programs.
“Amazigh studies started recently compared to other disciplines. However, the experience is more than 14 years old today and it is necessary to think about enabling Moroccan students to study this major at new universities.”Lahcen Amekrane
A professor of Amazigh studies at Hassan II University of Casablanca
These efforts culminated in the legal recognition of Tamazight in the 2011 Constitution of the Kingdom of Morocco. It states in Article 5 that “Tamazight [Berber/amazighe] constitutes an official language of the State, being common patrimony of all Moroccans without exception.”
However, teaching Tamazight at Moroccan universities did not start until 2007 at Ibn Zohr University, in Agadir in southern Morocco. Today, Tamazight is taught in only four of Morocco’s 13 public universities, namely Hassan II University of Casablanca, Sidi Mohamed Abdellah University in Fez, Mohammed I University in Oujda, and Ibn Zohr University.
For their part, Amazigh activists call for generalizing teaching their language across all universities to enable all Moroccan students to access this linguistic course.
Amekrane believes that teaching Tamazight depends on “the availability of a political will” to overcome all difficulties. “It is not about just teaching a language,” he said. “The issue has a strong cultural and identity dimension, and of course a symbolic one.”
Labor Market Challenges
“Most of the students enrolled in Amazigh studies at the university are activists and actors with a struggle awareness to advocate for the full empowerment of the Amazigh rights,” said Rachid Akerkad, an Amazigh activist and student with a master’s degree in Amazigh studies at Ibn Zohr University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. “They make great individual efforts despite all the difficulties, and eagerly study their mother tongue,” he said, adding that a small number of non-Berber-speaking students also enroll in Tamazight courses at the university.
“Most of the students enrolled in Amazigh studies at the university are activists and actors with a struggle awareness to advocate for the full empowerment of the Amazigh rights,”Rachid Akerkad
An Amazigh activist and student with a master’s degree in Amazigh studies
After the foundation stage led by the first generation of Tamazight professors at Morocco’s universities, most of whom studied the Amazigh language abroad, the second generation of Tamazight professors are graduates of the same program, Akerkad says. They are keen on developing teaching curricula in the Tifinagh script in particular.
As for the obstacles faced by students, Akerkad thinks the most important ones are related to labor market. “University Tamazight graduates only find jobs in education,” he said, and they work on short-term contracts while waiting for the implementation of the regulatory law to activate the official adoption of the Amazigh language. The law was approved in 2019. Putting it into effect will open new horizons and positions for graduates, Akerkad thinks.
Setbacks and Promises
In recent years, there has been a decline in the number of students enrolled in the Amazigh studies course at Ibn Zohr University. There were 178 students in its first cohort, in 2007. The number rose to more than 1,000 students in 2015, to be followed by a gradual decline until it hit only 238 students last year, says El-Hussein Bouyakoubi, a professor of Amazigh studies.
“The decline in students’ enrollment is closely related to the ambiguity of prospects due to the delay in the actual implementation of the law activating the official adoption of Amazigh outside the university, and its inclusion in the fields of public life,” he said.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Bouyakoubi pointed out that one problem is the poor level of some students in French, the instruction language often used in teaching Tamazight at university, also deters many students from continuing their studies.
“The decline in students’ enrollment is closely related to the ambiguity of prospects due to the delay in the actual implementation of the law activating the official adoption of Amazigh outside the university, and its inclusion in the fields of public life.”El-Hussein Bouyakoubi
A professor of Amazigh studies at Ibn Zohr University
Moreover, there is a misconception among some students that Tamazight is an easy subject because it is their mother tongue, when in fact it is a linguistic specialization that requires, like all languages, great effort. This leads some students to feel frustrated and withdraw from the program.
Nevertheless, some Amazigh activists seem optimistic about an improvement in teaching Tamazight, after Said Amzazi, the Moroccan Minister of National Education, Vocational Training, Higher Education and Scientific Research, made promises in his party’s election campaign two weeks ago.
Amzazi announced a ten-year program for teaching Tamazight, and promised to open Tamazight courses in universities at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels, besides developing Tamazight teaching curricula at schools.
“A baccalaureate holder must be proficient in Tamazight, just like their mastering Arabic, to give it the status it deserves,” said the minister in a press statement.
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At a news conference for his party before the kingdom’s parliamentary and local elections, held earlier this month, Amzazi promised to generalize the teaching of Tamazight by employing thousands of teachers. Two hundred teachers were employed last year, he said, and 400 others will be employed at the beginning of this academic year, to be followed by 1,000 teachers, with a plan to employ 5,000 teachers in 2030.