Multilingualism in Morocco is a Sociolinguistic Phenomenon

February 8, 2018


From antiquity to present day, few parts of the world have experienced a more colorful blend of languages as Morocco. In part, it is one of only three nations (along with Spain and France) to border the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Due to its close proximity to the Spanish mainland, Moroccan history is filled with foreign occupation and colonization, but it is uniquely distinguished by its Berber and Arabic cultural influences. Berbers (or Amazighs) are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa and possibly inhabitants of the Barbary Coast as far back as 10,000 BC.

There are an estimated 30 million Berber speakers in North Africa today but most also adopted other languages, which explains the large multilingual population in Morocco. Berber identity goes well beyond language and ethnicity, and encompasses a broad range of societies and ancestries. Due to the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, that separates Peninsular Spain from Morocco, this portion of North Africa has a rich history of foreign occupation and colonization. Both of which contribute to Morocco's cultural blend and stark contrast in the arts, music, cuisine, and traditions.

Morocco's ancient role in international trade and diplomacy predates the term "Lingua Franca." Today, multiple versions of marketplace languages can still be heard as merchants haggle in different areas of town. So, what is the official language of Morocco? According to the Charter of Educational Reform of 2000, Arabic (Darija dialect is the vernacular) is promoted by the government as part of Morocco's "Arabization Policy." The other language spoken in homes and on the streets is Berber. Historic Berber is heavily used in rural areas of the country for speaking but Berber is not used for writing.

When it comes to prestige languages, Morocco has two: Darija Arabic and French. French serves as the second language for many Moroccans and is used for business, diplomacy and government. As for the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa marketplace in Marrakesh, it is open 24 hours a day and the storytellers, dancers, water sellers, merchants, snake charmers and street hustlers always find a way to communicate using some combination of Arabic, French, Spanish, English, or a suitable lingua franca. English is spoken sporadically in business, science and education but has gained favor with younger Moroccans, as there are no colonial overtones, and English is an international language used worldwide.

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