The teaching language problem for scientific subjects in the training and education system, and the challenges of language mastery

by Amina Ikli

Figuring among several difficulties and challenges which the training and education sector is faced with, the language issue is still pending without a clear answer, especially in the sphere of scientific subjects. In fact, and on the occasion of the Anniversary of the King and the People’s Revolution in 2013, the Royal address was a correct and accurate diagnosis of the various problems which the education system has been suffering from. Actually, His Majesty pinpointed the system’s troubles when he said that “the education sector is facing many difficulties and problems, which are particularly due to the adoption of some education programs and curricula that are not commensurate with the requirements of the job market, in addition to the incoherence engendered by the shift of the vehicular language in the teaching of the scientific subjects from Arabic in primary and secondary education to some foreign languages used in some technical specialties, and in tertiary education.

This requires the linguistic re-habilitation of the pupil or the student in order to facilitate the latter’s ability to follow – and therefore assimilate – the education which he or she should


The linguistic re-habilitation of the student is indeed the core of the matter to solve this issue. Still, the question at stake is as follows: how can the student be linguistically re-habilitated to facilitate his or her scientific education? Expressed in a different way, what are the ‘best’ linguistic choices that have to be made for the education system within the Moroccan school? Which pedagogical goals and objectives must be used to decide our language options? And how can the level of the quality and efficiency of the selected language learning be successfully and profitably raised within the Moroccan school?

Background to the problem

The problem of the teaching language for the scientific subjects in the training and education system is not something new; it has roots back to the post-independence era. Morocco, since its independence, has pursued an Arabization policy after the colonial period during which all subjects used to be taught in French. The Arabization process that concerned the scientific subjects was, at a gradual pace, launched from 1982 to 1989 and used to cover only primary and secondary education. As for tertiary education, Arabization did not take place, and French was maintained as the vehicular language in the schools of medicine, engineering, technology, business and management. Thus knowledge acquisition and entry to several professions has, ever since, become conditional upon learning the French language. As a consequence, anyone who does not master it finds him or herself excluded from exercising professions which require an advanced level of knowledge of sciences, technology, economics and management. This, in turn, has led some students to shun scientific training and shift either to the study of law or to drop out of university altogether. For those that do try to follow courses in French without mastering the language, there is a risk of poor scientific training resulting from the amount of extra effort required by the student to understand the language.

Often, higher education teachers find difficulties to communicate with their students in the scientific subjects. In these, over half of the student population in the first year at the faculty of sciences fail to fully understand the French-taught scientific subjects. Addressing this problem at this late stage would require the dedication of an average of two additional years in order for first year students to overcome this linguistic hindrance. This would, consequently, constitute a minimal cost required to curb this difficulty. In fact, many students simply resort to the translation of the courses before revising them for exams 1 .

On the whole, the public school pupils’ level of language proves to be weaker than that of those students in private schools. Private schools usually double the number of foreign language sessions, use French foreign books in basic education, and appoint specialized French language teachers. All these measures, on the one hand, give rise to conditions which help in the mastery of this language; and, on the other hand, create a gap between public and private basic educations. Added to this is the fact that the vehicular language for scientific subjects in higher education is French. Accordingly, the more fluent the students are in French, the easier their higher education will be. Also, the more masterful they are of this language the greater the chances they will stand to pass the entrance exams for the highly selective faculties and institutes, and the better job they will be offered whether in the public or the private sector.

Even some low or limited income households sometimes choose to enrol their children at private schools. These families consider that they are compelled to do this as the sole guarantee for a maximum of education opportunities, which would, in turn, increase their chances to integrate the job market.

Focus group research shows that the language barrier is significant: in a number of focus group meetings held in Rabat and Meknes, many medicine students talked about their academic difficulties, during their first undergraduate years, especially when it comes to the scientific terminology in French – a matter which is far from being a difficulty for their peers whose French linguistic capacity is higher.

The present policies

In its 114th article, the National Charter of Training and Education stipulates the necessity for the diversification of the learning languages through the opening of some optional branches for the scientific, technical and pedagogical education in the Arabic language at university level. Accordingly, the building of strong bridges between secondary and tertiary education would have to be on the basis of an efficient and strong educational orientation. In order to provide the best chances for academic and vocational successes, the most specialized scientific and technical modules and units at secondary level will have to be taught in the language used in the branches

and specialties at tertiary level.

The 114th article of the Charter has not been implemented, even though the Charter was adopted as a guiding frame work for the public policies in the field of training and education in 2000 and, as of August 20th 2013, the Royal Address has attributed the problem with education to the language used for the teaching of scientific subjects.

Prospects and the analysis of alternatives

Through what has been said, it has become both necessary and urgent to find solutions for the linguistic policies and choices in public school, for the choice of the teaching language must be based on its functional pertinence within the community. Below is a series of five possible orientations in this field:

1. Maintain the status quo while improving the French learning conditions during all the study cycles, and reinforcing the students’ mastery of this language side by side with Arabic

In this way, students could understand more easily the courses at tertiary level without any difficulty or loss of energy and time for translation. More hours would need to be dedicated for translation at the secondary level, along with modules to be devoted for language and communication at the higher education level, in addition to the integration of lexicons within the secondary education books.

Though not in itself a considerable innovation, this alternative would require the rewriting and re-setting the school-books and curricula for the sake of teaching the French language. It would also necessitate the training of the French language teachers, and the adoption of a more communicative approach to teaching. Finally, the results of this policy will be seen in no less than ten years from now, quite besides the fact that it will call upon the dedication a sufficient period of time for the preparation of the curricula.

2. Teaching the scientific subjects in the most spoken foreign language in secondary education (French) as of junior high school level while keeping primary and secondary education Arabized

In fact, Morocco has known some success stories with respect to this, especially in the teaching of economic and other technical subjects which is undertaken in French as of the secondary level. In these branches at the high school level, French is used as a vehicular language in the teaching of engineering sciences, economics, accountancy, business administration, computing sciences, electricity techniques, and mechanics, while mathematics, physics, and natural sciences are taught in Arabic. All of these subjects could be taught in French, without being harmful to the students’ capacities of Arabic learning, as long as some other subjects are taught in Arabic (typically including history and geography, Islamic studies, and civic education). A large proportion of the higher education students who studied economics in French at high school declared that they had had no difficulty relating to the French language, especially in their passage from secondary to tertiary education at universities or higher institutes. The time span to implement this policy proves to be short and could lead to concrete results within only 3 to 4 years from now.

3. Teaching sciences in all cycles in the most commonly used scientific language in higher education starting with the primary level

This might prove to be costly both for teachers’ re-education and the re-setting of curricula or the time the whole process should take. Still, the students would be able to master the vehicular language. This would spare them not only the extra effort and time they would, otherwise, spend in translation, but also spare them the trouble of dealing with terminology and, therefore, allow them to invest this spared time in assimilation and scientific learning and research, and in consolidating their linguistic capacities in the scientific field from the outset.

4. Arabizing some optional scientific branches at the higher educational level, as stipulated by the National Charter of Training and Education, which will help some students with a poor mastery of French to pursue their academic studies in the scientific field

The feasibility of this policy and its present cost do not seem to be totally clear as long as the Arabic Language Academy stipulated in the Charter has not been established. In the meantime, the State may resort to employing foreign Arabic teachers in Sciences at the higher education level. For its implementation, however, this policy does remain costly, considering the writing and publication of the scientific books, let alone the training of university teachers in order for them to teach the scientific subjects in Arabic. Next to the high cost of publication and training comes the time required for the translation and the updating of the Arabic scientific lexicon.

This can only serve as an alternative that can lead to a gradual Arabization of some scientific branches, or the Arabization of only a few subjects in higher education.

5. Without doubt, English is the language of science par excellence 2 . Today, a great proportion of articles and scientific research are published in English, hence the necessity to set, at the higher education level, scientific and technical classes in English, particularly at the Master and PhD degree levels “From now on, researchers in Moroccan universities, particularly those reading for a PhD degree, should forget that French is the language of science as was the case in the past decades. Those who missed in the past the opportunity to learn it (English) should do their uttermost to start learning it lest they should have all the doors closed before them. The reason for this is that French is no longer the language of scientific research.” Such was the message addressed by the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Lahcen Daoudi, to some PhD Center students at the National Institute of Post and Telecommunication in Rabat. In this context, the Ministry of Higher Education could dedicate some English course programs which may vary – time wise – between six and twelve months in aid of Master and PhD degree students of science.

This can be secured through some intensive courses of communicative and scientific English courses, which will increase the level of scientific research in Morocco.

Conclusion and recommendations

When acceding to higher education, Moroccan students of science face a disproportionate educational system, where language works as a barrier to entry and success. The issue has to be rationally tackled, away from any ideological, ethnic, political or identity considerations. In the pedagogical system, languages must be taught according to their topical and natural functions as a means of communication and expression.

They must be at the service of individual and collective development, and be used as a means for individual qualification. This would lead to this individual’s integration at the local regional or international levels. Language learning should also be a tool, through which culture can be acquired and useful scientific and technical capacities built.

Through what has previously been said, the second and fifth alternatives remain by far the most rational ones, considering their feasibility, their cost and the efficiency of their results in the short run. The results of the Ministry of National

Education’s experience with aligning the language of instruction at secondary level with the language of instruction at tertiary level in specific subjects has been very positive, therefore providing important evidence in favour of the second option above. Regarding the fifth option of teaching in English, it does seem that access to latest research is going to remain dependent on mastery of English for the foreseeable future, and therefore Master and PhD students should have the opportunities to reinforce their competences in this language.

1 According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Higher Education, entitled Regards sur l’Enseignement Supérieur au Maroc (Views on Higher Education in Morocco)

see the figures for publication in this article, which show that over 95% of referenced scientific articles are publilshed in English

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