If you're curious what language is spoken in Morocco, then you might be surprised to hear that answering "Arabic" is an oversimplification. Morocco is quite multilingual, with a rich linguistic history stretching back long before the arrival of Arab culture. Additionally, like other Arabic-speaking countries, the official Arabic dialect of Morocco is not technically a native language to its inhabitants at all (see below).
Almost all Moroccans are of either Arab or Berber descent. The most commonly used language in the country is Moroccan Arabic, which is also known as Darija Arabic. Over 85% of Moroccans speak Moroccan Arabic. Most people use it in casual conversation, the workplace and in informal settings.
Moroccan Arabic is quite different to Modern Standard Arabic and other dialects.
It's heavily influenced by (among others) Berber. Berber is another language group entirely, but we’ll explain that below.
Moroccans use Modern Standard Arabic in more formal settings. Classical Arabic is a prestigious language in Morocco.
Like most Arab-speaking countries, Morocco uses Modern Standard Arabic in government, education and the news media. Although it’s not an actual native language anywhere in the Arab world, it has become the unifying lingua franca among countries where people speak many different variations of the Arabic language. Using Modern Standard Arabic allows people in all these countries to understand each other.
Classical Arabic is the language of prestige, formality and religion. You will find it in religious services, classical writing and scholarly pursuits.
Although it’s not listed as an official language, most Moroccans speak French due to France's history of occupation in Morocco. The French set up a military occupation in 1907. It lasted until Morocco declared independence in 1956.
The language remained, however, and French is second in prestige only to Classical Arabic in Morocco. Many educated people speak it, and Moroccans still use it in business, medicine, university courses and diplomatic transactions.
Morocco is a member of the Francophonie, an organization that represents countries or regions where most people speak French.
Many Moroccans are of Berber descent. It's estimated that around 35% of Moroccans speak Berber, but you are more likely to hear it in rural or desert regions. Berber has dozens of regional dialects, and will sound different depending on which part of Morocco you are in (there are also Berber groups right across North Africa as far as Egypt).
Moroccan Arabic is a combination of the most commonly spoken Berber dialects. Moroccan governments and the education system chose it to unify Moroccans linguistically. Before the development of Moroccan Arabic, Berber-speaking Moroccans from different regions couldn’t understand each other.
Most Moroccans who grow up speaking one of the Berber languages learn Moroccan Arabic as a second language.
Over the centuries, Spain has occupied Morocco several times. Spain still owns the coastal cities Melilla and Ceuta, which are on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. These cities have been under Spanish rule since the 15th century. The cities have been a source of diplomatic tension between the two countries. Moroccans believe they belong to Morocco and that Spain is an occupying force.
The cities sit on Europe’s only land border with Africa. They also give rise to another linguistic peculiarity.
Over 20% of Moroccans speak Spanish. In the Northern regions, TV and radio stations broadcast Spanish-language programming. Businesses communicate in Spanish, and people grow up speaking both Arabic and Spanish. There are several Spanish language institutes in Morocco.
An increasing number of educated Moroccans are learning English. The number continues to grow as English becomes a major international language.
Want to learn Moroccan Arabic?