Critical abilities only bloom when one is able to look at one’s own culture and identity from an outsider’s perspective.

Amine Zidouh

From an early age, Amine Zidouh sensed the connection between language and power.

Growing up in Morocco, Zidouh spoke French and Moroccan Darija, a language many consider merely a dialect of Arabic spoken by those outside the power structure. However, Moroccans with the economic means to learn French enjoy privileged status, a certain symbolic capital, as do French-speakers in most postcolonial Francophone countries.

“The language I spoke at home was looked down upon in the sense that it was seen as a lower version of Arabic,” explains Zidouh, a professor of French & Francophone studies. “What I was speaking was considered dialect, not a real language. But what makes a language a language? Who decides?”

That intersection of language, power and ideology is at the core of Zidouh’s research and teaching. Zidouh studies “dislocated French” — his term for a language considered “owned” by France but transplanted to other regions via colonization.

French is the official language of 29 countries, including 21 African nations, but Zidouh argues even the term Francophone is the subject of debate extending beyond language to identity, race and politics. To understand that debate about the postcolonial Francophone world, Zidouh examines how colonizers used language to dominate — the effects of which remain today.

“It’s intriguing to note the different modalities and policies used by the Spanish and even the British colonial empires compared to the French as far as imposing linguistic domination,” he says. “Wherever the French went, only the elites who worked with the colonizer seemed to acquire the French language. Such an acquisition also came with symbolic and economic capital and dominance, the latter helping to reproduce those same inequalities even in the postcolonial era.”

In his classes, Zidouh teaches students to recognize how spoken language changes a speaker’s status and gives insight into culture and history.

“I want students to learn they can apply the same tools to any context, but more importantly, to their own culture,” Zidouh explains. “I want them to reflect on what they take for granted in their own cultures. Critical abilities only bloom when one is able to look at one’s own culture and identity from an outsider’s perspective. Such critical abilities are more crucial in the times we’re living in, with so many extreme discourses becoming more mainstream.”

Posted October 2018