Amazigh: from oblivion to the classroom

By Ahmed El Jechtimi

“The promotion of Amazigh is a national responsibility,” King Mohammed VI of Morocco said in the famous speech of Ajdir - a locality in the middle Atlas mountains - on October 17, 2001, on the occasion of sealing the royal decree creating and organizing the Royal institute for Amazigh culture (IRCAM).

The decree states that IRCAM is charged with “…safeguarding, promoting and reinforcing the place of our Amazigh culture in educational, socio-cultural and national media…”

The establishment of IRCAM paved the way for Amazigh to be introduced into the educational system, for the first time in independent Morocco. The decision marked a new era in the history of a language, which, despite its confinement in oral usage, managed to survive fierce rivalries from prestigious languages.


In 1994, late King Hassan II underlined the importance of introducing the Amazigh "dialects” in the educational system. The promise only saw the light of day in 2003, when IRCAM signed a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Education providing for elaborating programmes to integrate Amazigh in school curricula and organising training sessions for teachers.

The Rabat-based IRCAM, with an annual budget of about 70 million Dirhams (8.5 million U.S. dollars), brings together under one roof eminent Amazigh researchers who work in seven research centers: Language Planning, Didactic Research and Educational Programs, history and environment, Anthropology and Sociology, Arts, Literary Expressions and Audiovisual Production, Informatics Studies, and translation and communication.

This recognition of Amazigh as a constituent of the national identity, by the highest authority in the country, puts linguists at IRCAM in front of the daunting task of rehabilitating the language to meet the needs of its speakers at an age of globalization and modernity.


Amazigh is spoken as a mother tongue by millions of Moroccan children, hence the crucial need to safeguard and promote it. Scientific research at international levels found that teaching in the mother tongue and the official national language helps children to obtain better results and stimulates their cognitive development and capacity to learn.

According to studies by the UNESCO and several university centers, a child can not fully master a foreign language until he/she has mastered his/her mother tongue. “This psychological fact should be taken into consideration,” Director of Didactic Research and Educational Programs Center at IRCAM, Mohamed El Baghdadi said. He deems that introducing Amazigh at schools would raise “the citizens’ pride of all the constituents of their national identity.”

Teaching is also a way to safeguard the language. The 2009 UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger identified the region of Feguig (East) and Beni iznasen (north east) among the Moroccan regions where Amazigh is endangered.

Although the introduction of Amazigh in the educational system was set as “mandatory” to all Moroccan students for three hours a week, there is still an urgent need to rehabilitate this ancestral language which has been confined to oral usage for centuries.


When we talk about Amazigh in Morocco, we, rather refer to the three regional varieties: Tarifit in the northern Rif mountains; Tamazight in the middle Atlas and the eastern high Atlas and Tachelhit in the Souss plain, anti-Atlas and western high Atlas. Immigration also brought about large numbers of speakers of these dialects in the big cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech, and Tangier, and in Europe.

Following the development of the historical Tifinagh script, a standardization of Amazigh, based on the common grammatical structure of these varieties and their basic lexis, has been achieved by IRCAM, and several dictionaries and grammar books were issued.

EL Baghdadi explains that in order to avoid teaching a “laboratory language”, IRCAM started with issuing schoolbooks using the three dialects. He said IRCAM adopts a strategy of a gradual standardization of Amazigh through education covering the six years of primary education.

The Institute contributes to the teaching process also by training sessions on Amazigh and its didactic methods to teachers, education inspectors and professors in teachers’ training centres.

For Arab students in Amazigh classes, the situation is similar to learning any new language for the first time, El Baghdadi said. “With a good teacher and available schoolbooks and teaching tools, the student will interact positively.”

Amazigh schoolbooks focus on inculcating the values of good citizenship, respect for human rights and environment protection. The gender approach is also taken into account, as the Amazigh schoolbook is the only in Morocco where we find female and male characters appear with an equal number.

The launch of an Amazigh TV, scheduled for late 2009, would help the process of learning the national standard Amazigh and contribute to narrowing the gap between its varieties El Baghdadi said.

“We can give the example of numerous Moroccans who have never been to Egypt, but who understand the Egyptian dialect, due to their exposure to Egyptian Drama in the Moroccan television for over 40 years.”


Fatima El Ibrahimi is among the teachers who have chosen to take up the challenge of teaching Amazigh with devotion and conviction. “I chose to teach Amazigh because I am Amazigh,” she said, before adding with apparent joy: “I love what I am doing.”

El Ibrahimi, who received the IRCAM 2006 prize for education and salted away a part of the awarded to refurbish her classroom, explained that Arab and Amazigh students learn to read and write Amazigh with the much enthusiasm and passion.

Most students like to attend the Amazigh class “because it is an opportunity for them to get out of the routine and learn a new language with a new script,” she said.

El Ibrahimi is so committed to teaching Amazigh to an extent that she, and other teachers of Amazigh in Rabat, took the initiative to elaborate a teacher’s guide for each course of the first year schoolbook. The guide is pending publication by IRCAM.


“The promotion of Amazigh in Morocco falls within the framework of a new cultural policy, notably in the field of education and the media,” Rector of IRCAM, Ahmed Boukous said lately at a roundtable held by the UNESCO to celebrate the International Mother Tongue Day.

“This policy yielded interesting results to an extent that we can speak rightfully today of a Moroccan example which explained how we can standardize a language which was, up to now, in a delicate situation,” he said, adding that teaching Amazigh today is provided to around 500,000 students, supervised by 20,000 teachers and 800 educational inspectors.

Teaching Amazigh was also introduced at university level. The university of Agadir even offered, in 2006, a Master degree in the Amazigh language and culture.

Despite some obstacles that face the inclusion of Amazigh in the educational system, such as the indifference of some academies, the lack of teachers and schoolbooks and the inadequate follow-up, the decision to integrate Amazigh in the educational system is a significant step towards establishing a stronger unity in diversity.

“The plurality of the streams that forged our history and shaped our identity is an integral part of the unity of our Nation, united around its sacred values and its intangible foundations,” King Mohammed VI said in the speech of Ajdir.