Lost in Translation: Morocco's Linguistic Pluralism

Moroccans speak many languages, but they don't always know how to speak to one another.

Since the Berber language of Amazigh became an official language of Morocco three years ago, an unexpected question has come up: does the Moroccan parliament need an on-site translator?
Recently, one MP asked that sessions of parliament be translated into Amazigh, echoing calls made since the constitution was revised in 2011. When some MPs began to use Amazigh in the parliamentary chamber, colleagues complained the language should be barred because they didn’t understand it.
Moroccans and other North Africans often weave together multiple languages in a single conversation, switching effortlessly among formal and colloquial Arabic, French, Spanish, and dialects of Berber—there are at least three major ones in Morocco alone—depending on their origin. Around a third of Moroccans speak a Berber dialect as a first language. This dynamic isn’t unique to Morocco. Large communities of Berber speakers are also in Algeria, Iraq has a large Kurdish-speaking population, Iran has Kurds and Azeris, and Israel has more than a million Arab citizens. Smaller linguistic minorities are scattered throughout the region.
Above the fray of local languages, English is infiltrating the market. English has been the language of engineering, medicine, and pharmacy for many Arab countries for decades, and it is penetrating North Africa as never before. Interest in English is tied to aspirations for greater economic opportunity and global connectivity. While learning English might make it easier for Moroccans to speak to the world, it won’t help them overcome the challenge of speaking to one another.

This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.