Morocco’s diminishing interest in learning Spanish

The number of students studying Spanish in Morocco has dropped drastically

Moroccan students during a Spanish class at the Cervantes Institute in Rabat.
Moroccan students during a Spanish class at the Cervantes Institute in Rabat.INSTITUTO CERVANTES

The strengthening bond between Spain and Morocco is reflected in their cooperation on illegal immigration, terrorism and the economy. Indeed, Spain replaced France four years ago as Morocco’s main trading partner. However, when it comes to the Spanish language, Spain has lost ground in the last decade as Moroccan students choose to study French and English instead.

Mohamed Dahou, a Spanish translator who finished his degree in Spanish language in 2008 at Fez University, is now 33 and seeking work in Rabat while studying English. “If you want a good job in Morocco, first you have to have a very good level of French because it’s our second official language after Arabic. Besides French, English offers an increasing number of opportunities. Spanish is no more than a bonus. I should have studied law and learned Spanish on my own.”

Dahou adds that when he started studying, universities had teaching jobs, but by the time he had finished, demand for such positions had dried up. “You can still study a degree in Spanish in Fez, Agadir, Casablanca, Rabat, Tétouan and Nador, but there are fewer and fewer lecturers because they hardly have any students,” he says. “Most of my classmates who graduated with me don’t even use Spanish in their private lives, only to read the odd article. Some make their living from French translations and others changed direction completely.”

Fatiha Benlabbah, director of the Institute for Spanish and Portuguese Studies in Rabat, says that it is almost impossible to obtain current official figures on Spanish in Morocco’s state education system. A veteran Spanish teacher, she is probably responsible for digging out most of the data available. “From the 1990s until 2007-2008, there were more than 400 students signing up for Spanish at university a year,” she says. “But at Casablanca University, between new students and those repeating, there were scarcely 107 by 2013-2014. This number fell to 69 the following year, then to 64 in 2015-2016 and 50 in 2016-2017.”

“There is a lot of talk about getting closer and getting to know each other better so we can stop stereotyping,” says Benlabbah, “but the reality is what it is. When we went from Rabat to Tétouan or Tangier in the 1980s, you heard Spanish. In Rabat, it was French that was spoken automatically and in the north it was Spanish. You got to Tangier and you would find Spanish television on. It is what characterized the north of the country. The government trained Spanish secondary teachers to meet the demand. Now Spanish teachers are only trained in Tétouan. There’s a drop in the number of students studying Spanish in both high schools and universities. Officially, it’s English, English, English and parents also demand that English be taught in high school.”

Javier Galván, who coordinates all the Cervantes Institutes in North Africa, says it’s a case of being realistic. He also argues for the creation of an entity to study the evolution of Spanish so that the current situation can be properly measured. “We don’t know exactly how many students are signed up to academies,” he says.

The Cervantes Institute has six centers in Morocco, scattered between Casablanca, Fez, Marrakech, Rabat, Tangier and Tétouan. In 2008, they had 13,542 students between them, a figure that fell to 11,409 by last year. In a country with a population of 34 million, most of the students are from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. But the data becomes less clear in the public sector.

Still, Galván agrees that the role of the Spanish language has diminished in Moroccan society. “We have to face up to what’s happening now. Spanish has to be considered a complementary language as opposed to one competing with French. If we are realistic, we can’t expect that simply because of our proximity to each other and our common history, people here are going to study Spanish.”

There is not even a big demand for Spanish in Marrakech, Morocco’s biggest tourist center. According to Yolanda Soler, the director of the Cervantes Institute there, “A Moroccan improves his French, which allows him to improve his job. Next he learns English, which he speaks with tourists. Years ago, five star hotels would ask us for courses in Spanish, but not any more. And in the Medina or in any restaurant, the shopkeepers’ and waiters’ Spanish is enough to sell their product.”

Cervantes goes south

Morocco has six Cervantes Institutes scattered between Casablanca, Fez, Marrakech, Rabat, Tangier and Tétouan. In 2008, they had 13,542 students between them, a figure that dropped to 11,409 in 2017.

The number of universities offering Spanish courses have fallen. From the 1990s until 2008, there were around 400 students a year. Now there are 50. The economic crisis and the lack of employment in Spain have reduced interest in learning the language.

The new director of Cervantes in Casablanca, María Jesús García recently organized the ‘Spanish as a Foreign Language in North Africa Congress’. “When I arrived in Casablanca [four months ago], the teachers told me that in the last few years the students had lost interest in learning Spanish due to the economic crisis and the lack of jobs in Spain,” she says.

García is, however, optimistic about the future. She points out that the Casablanca center has more than 3,000 students, which is not just more than all the Cervantes Institutes in Morocco, it makes it the seventh most popular Cervantes center in the world. She also points out that there are a large number of Spanish firms in Morocco. “And other foreign companies employ Spanish professionals to manage their branches here, to achieve a better understanding between the two cultures,” she adds. “I prefer to be optimistic about the future.”

Fatiha Benlabbah, however, believes that a Spanish speaking elite is emerging due to the lack of Spanish in public education. “There is a Moroccan elite that goes to Spanish schools and then sends their children to Spanish universities. But it’s the majority that matters,” she says. “I want the progress of Spanish in the world to reach Morocco too.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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