Moroccan Science Students are Confused–Arabic, French or English?

Story by Soukaina El Ouaai 

Lahcen Daoudi, Minister of Higher Education - Taken by Soukaina El Ouaai.
Lahcen Daoudi, Minister of Higher Education – Taken by Soukaina El Ouaai.

RABAT, Morocco – Ismail Chaabi, 18, is a first year biology student at Mohammed V University. The souvenir of getting his baccalaureate degree is still fresh and so is the disappointment of not studying elsewhere, because his French and English levels aren’t good enough.

Ismail didn’t choose to go to Mohammed V University, but he got rejected from every school he applied for because they require a good foreign languages level. And since he didn’t have any other choice, it was this, or staying home.

“I don’t feel like I belong here” he said, “Many students at my University don’t care about their studies, and don’t even attend courses. I have a lot of ambitions, but I don’t think that the faculty will help me achieve those.”

In Moroccan science universities, courses, textbooks, researches and reference documents are all in French. But for as long as they can remember, high schoolers take scientific classes like biology, chemistry and others in Standard Arabic, which is the country’s first educational language.

The problem isn’t new but the frustration of college students is mounting. In the 1980’s the government in place switched learning in primary and secondary school to Arabic while higher education is still taught in French. With weekly protests of unemployed graduates, students feel like the system is not preparing them adequately for the job market and even causing them to fail with this language gap.

Science students- Mohammad V University in Rabat. Taken by Soukaina El Ouaai
Science students- Mohammad V University in Rabat. Taken by Soukaina El Ouaai

According to the Ministry of Education, 78 percent of students know how to read and write in French but don’t understand what they read.

The Minister of Higher Education, Lahcen Daoudi believes that the students should be the ones putting the efforts in catching up in college.

“As for students, it’s not up to us”, he said during our interview in his office “It is their will and only theirs, if they want to improve their language skills.”

“ We have more than 54 000 Moroccan students in Russia, France and in the United States,” he added. “Those students learn the foreign language in six months. Not mentioning that, up to the senior year in high school, 1600 French hours are programmed for students here in Morocco. How can’t you learn a language in such a long time? And here comes the influence of many social factors.”

When Daoudi proposed the introduction of English in higher education, many opposed the addition of an additional language but others believes that it could be a good solution.

“English is offered less hours in middle school and high school,” Dr. Mohamed Melouk, Professor at Mohammed V University says. “But generally when students go to university, in one year, they reach the level that will allow them to study in English.”

“But it’s not the case for French, which is something puzzling,” he added. “When you look deep into it, in Morocco, French is taught in the Moroccan dialect, so we cannot expect the student to master it when the teacher himself doesn’t.”

Many students are very enthusiastic about the idea, just like Asmaa Bahadi, 18, who studies journalism in Arabic at ISIC, the Moroccan School of Journalism and Communication.

“I was a science major in high school,” she said. “Then I went to Mohammed V University, but apparently it wasn’t what I really wanted. So I completely changed my path to go towards journalism even though I still like science.” Asmaa uses English on a daily basis, so for her it would have been much better to do what she likes in the language she likes the most.

But not everyone thinks that Arabic is such a bad idea. It just needs to be implemented more adequately taking the example of other countries like Syria where medicine is taught in English.

“I’ve always been a supporter of arabization, but the arabization that applies to all social classes” Charles-André Julien, historian, first and former Dean of the Faculty of Literature in Rabat and contributor to the foundation of its initial programs, said in November 1960 “I’m afraid that the arabization we are practicing now is making Morocco a country intellectually underdeveloped. None of the officials, dignitaries or Ulema send their children to a Moroccan school, but you find them fighting in front of La Mission Française to get a seat for their kid, seeking a better education.”

Still, others believe that there just isn’t enough research in Arabic for certain disciplines.

“If you want to teach science in a given language,” says Dr. Melouk “you have to produce knowledge in that same language. The question now is how much scientific production is done in Arabic? And the answer is obviously, almost none.”

For the time being students are getting crafty to not fall behind in class and are even using Youtube videos to review their courses. Many hope for a quick reform that will make their learning experience smoother.

Nassim El Garni, 21, and a third- year Computer Sciences student at Mohamed V University in Rabat hopes that English will be introduced before he finishes his degree.

“In computer sciences, most of the programs are in English, but we are taught everything here in French which is confusing,” he said. “I’m not that good in French, but I am confident that it’d be better to switch for English.”

Jennifer Kwon contributed reporting

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