Rabat, Morocco – When Widad Houmaid, 20, earned good marks in high school, she decided to enrol in a biology class at Hassan II University in Casablanca.
There was only one problem; Moroccan university professors teach science in French. Houmaid, a graduate of Moroccan public schools where maths and science are taught in Arabic, does not speak French.
She is now struggling in her biology class. “You have to speak French to get the professors’ respect, and to get their attention,” she said.
Moroccan science professors, she added, are failing their Arabic-speaking students.
For help, Houmaid relies on YouTube videos like this one in which a science course on thermodynamics is taught in Arabic.
The language debate in Moroccan education dates back to the 1980s, when public schools switched from French, the teaching language established since Morocco was under French colonial rule, to Arabic.
I did 12 years in Arabic, three years of French, and now I have to go back to teaching people in Arabic. You need to have 'Google translate' in your head.
Despite the switch at school level, Arabic did not become the teaching language at universities, particularly for maths or science. This was mainly due to a shortage of qualified teachers who spoke Arabic.
The switch was not without hurdles. According to Mohamed Melouk, a professor of research methodology and curriculum development at Mohammed V University in Rabat, the abrupt switch from French to Arabic caused problems for pupils.
“Students can work with any mathematical formulas, they can break down any computers or computer programme. But in terms of communication, the mastery of language, they are still poor,” said Melouk. “If you give them the means, the instruments to communicate, they would go further.”
Last December, Rachid Belmokhtar, the national education minister, made a controversial proposal to a go back to French for the teaching of maths, science, and physics studies in secondary schools.
The move was vetoed by Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, whose moderate Islamist political party strongly supports continuing teaching in Arabic.
However, Belmokhtar’s proposal, which got the backing of the Moroccan King Mohammed VI, was approved in February by a council of ministers. Accordingly, the switch back to French for maths and science will be implemented over the next 15 years.
Moroccan education officials blame students’ language difficulties on big class sizes and teachers who lack skills. According to a UNESCO report published in 2015, during the period from 2011-2014, the average student/class ratio for primary level was around 28-29 students per class. It has been increasing steadily at university level from 33 in 2001 to 38.4 in 2014.
“In Morocco, more than 1,600 hours of French is offered [through high school] so students should be good in French,” Lahcen Daoudi, the minister of higher education, scientific research and training, told Al Jazeera. “That is not a problem of hours of language learning, it is a problem of quality of work that is put in.”
Two years ago, the Faculty of Science at Mohammed V University in Rabat started offering a beginner French class for students lagging behind in the language. Many students need the help, according to Asmaa Badhadi, 18, who is studying journalism at Institut Superieur de l’Information et de la Communication in Rabat. “The test made for students who don’t speak good French was so easy. It was like choosing ‘la maison’ or ‘le maison’, but people still didn’t pass the test,” said Badhadi.
Nationwide, there were about 185,000 students enrolled in science programmes, according to government figures. But 85 percent of the students at the University of Hassan II Mohammedia – the country’s most prestigious engineering school – said they struggle to be fluent enough in French to succeed in their studies, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Research & Method in Education.
A quarter said they have a lot of trouble understanding the French language, and 60 percent reported some problems with understanding the language. Only 5 percent of all Moroccans obtain university degrees and one reason, university professors say, are challenges with language proficiency.
“There are a lot of people who, after the first week, drop out of university because of this issue,” said Nabila Guennouni, a second-year student in the computer science department at Hassan II University.
Wealthier parents have the privilege to enrol their children in private primary schools, that grants them much more exposure to the French language. In private schools, science and maths are taught both in Arabic and French, and French as a language class is taught from first grade.
In public schools, however, students start learning French in fourth grade. “You mess with the linguistic policy, you create a private system … What’s the rationale behind this policy?” said Nabil Belkabir, the cofounder of UECSE a student-led movement to improve education.
Complicating matters even further is a new government plan to give English a larger place in education. English will now be introduced starting in the fourth grade.
“I think it would be better if the whole system was in English for scientific studies,” said Oumayma El-Jahsani, an engineering student at CPGE Moulay Youssef, a school in Rabat. “Because even after you study in French, when you do research, sometimes you find books only in English.”
According to Ben Saga, the director of the information and orientation division of the higher education ministry, the priority now is to have English language in higher level education, especially for PhDs and master’s students. “It is very important for us to have this for scientific research, since the majority of it is in English,” he told Al Jazeera. “Our PhD students find it difficult to have direct access to scientific research in the world if we only have Arabic or French. So for us, it is very important to have this.”
Many Moroccan students say they like the new English language requirement, as they view fluency in the English language as an advantage, not only in school but also in the job market.
“English will be helpful for all because it’s easy and we can work with it,” said Nassim El Garni, a third-year mathematics and computer science student at Mohammed V university
Others aren’t so sure, seeing it as merely the continuation of the problems that have arisen with making French so necessary.
“Is it possible for a country to develop if it speaks the language of another country or if it not capable of speaking its own language?” asks Hamza Alioua, spokesman for the UECSE and a second-year student at the Hassan II University.
Jennifer Kwon spent several months in Morocco as part of an SIT Study Abroad programme. This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media which is reclaiming international news. Soukaina El Ouaai contributed reporting.