Speaking in Tongues: On Code-Switching in Moroccan Daily Life

By: Madison Ashley

October 1, 2014

At the street level, life carries on as normal. In the late afternoon sun, Moroccan cafes, a thriving ground zero for social life and politics, bustle with activity. Yet a closer listen might reveal a number of things—that while the news playing on the TV in the background is in Fusha Arabic, the café menu is entirely in French, and the patrons themselves are speaking in a mix of Darija, or colloquial Moroccan Arabic, and Tamazight, the language of Morocco’s Amazigh peoples.

If you asked the café-goers, a largely male crowd smoking Marlboros and sipping mint tea, about this phenomenon, your question might elicit a shrug. For Moroccans, code-switching among Fusha (modern standard Arabic), Darija, and French is the modus operandi of daily life, a mechanism for survival in a country that has seen itself pulled in all directions—by the French, the Arabian Peninsula, and, increasingly, the United States in the past century alone.

Morocco is an oral culture, and while the nation’s turn as a French protectorate for the first half of the twentieth century may have introduced a written language imperative, it also catalyzed the country’s linguistic confusion, rendering linguistics a deeply ideological battleground on which rests the trajectory of the country’s identity and critical bridge between the West and northern Africa.

For instance, while the majority of Moroccan children speak Darija (or in the Amazigh provinces, Tamazight) at home, beginning the first day of primary school they are thrust into the world of modern standard Arabic. This first subconscious rejection of their mother tongue is only compounded over the years by the continued presence of French as the language of instruction in higher education and the primacy of the English language in the arts and entertainment sphere.

Indeed, though Morocco gained independence from the French in 1956, French linguistic soft power is still very much visible as an undercurrent in Moroccan society. From dual language signage (French and Arabic) on official government buildings, embassies, and universities, to the smartly placed advertisements throughout town for cultural events hosted by the Alliance Française and other prominent Francophone organizations. Yet in this game of linguistic Monopoly, the French are losing.

In a speech this past March, the Moroccan Minister of Higher Education, Lahcen Daoudi, declared that the government would move to increase the primacy of English in the university system, owing to its rising status as the lingua franca of scientific research. This came on the heels of Independence Party Secretary-General Hamid Chabat’s statement earlier in the month calling for English to be an official language of Morocco (Currently, Morocco has two official languages—Modern Standard Arabic and Tamazight, the latter of which was adopted as an official language in 2011).

While Moroccan society has the potential to be polarized by this linguistic battle, the country’s lack of linguistic cohesion has not rendered it incapable of developing a broader sense of national identity. Rather, Morocco’s multilingualism is a vocal symbol of the country’s multiculturalism and embrace of at turns European, Arab, and tribal identities.

For those of us foreigners living abroad in Morocco, the linguistic situation is realized somewhat differently. As a foreigner, your choice of language can decide whether your tagine arrives piping hot or lukewarm; your petit taxi driver charges you double for a ride across town; or you receive a free pastry at a local ice cream shop after trying to count in Darija to the waitress.

That is why, though I take daily classes in Fusha Arabic here, it is not my Fusha but rather “Survival Darija” phrases that I keep folded in my wallet at all times. Learning to my speak to my host family in Darija is a seemingly small but worthy endeavor, an unspoken acknowledgement of the continued legitimacy of their mother tongue in the vibrant, linguistic melting pot that is Morocco.

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