With primary school about to start in Algeria, an ideological conflict over identity and language is deepening after a trend emerged of teaching vernacular Algerian dialects at an early age, stirring serious social controversy.
The debate over teaching Algerian dialect, which is a mixture of Arabic, French and Spanish, re-emerged in the recommendations following a conference held by the Ministry of Education in June — with the participation of experts in education — that called for retaining the Arabic language for primary-grade students between the ages of 5 and 6 using colloquial dialects from the areas in which they live, because children do not understand classical Arabic at that age.
This “unplanned step” would make Algerian schools like a cat on a hot tin roof, as opponents warned of low educational levels, most notably because students from the primary grades until university are really weak in the French language.
In short order, the recommendation sparked a case of intense polarization between the intellectual, Francophone-oriented elite and the pro-localization policy group. Each began issuing their opinion on the implications of teaching colloquial dialects on the Algerian community of the future. Social expert Nasser Jabi believes Algerian society “is facing a conflict between those who support the French language and those who support the Arabic, and this conflict has now reached the schools and the ruling establishment where positions are distributed according to linguistic trends, which has led to non-recognition of linguistic pluralism. Although we are not sure whether it is best to adopt vernacular dialects in school, the issue [also] remains in the methods of teaching it.”
The debate has revealed ambiguities in the mechanism of teaching colloquial dialects. Mustapha Bin Omar, minister of education in the 1980s, said, “The issue of teaching vernacular dialects is vague. Some talk about the mother tongue, while others talk about colloquial dialects. This remains vague, even for me. I cannot grasp this matter when it comes to this decision, especially since each area has its own dialect. I thought the recommendation meant for the teacher to speak colloquially — as was the case years ago — but stop when the lesson begins. But it seems that the recommendation has another dimension.”
Algerian dialects differ from one area to another in a country that is more than 2.2 million square kilometers, with a population of 40 million people. The country's constitution stipulates that Arabic is the “official language,” and it recognizes the Amazigh language as a “national language,” while the French language has no official position, although it is widespread at the popular and official levels and in schools and universities.
The writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi is one of the defenders of classical Arabic, alleging an attempt by Francophones to eliminate it through planned steps, starting with removing it from the languages adopted by the education system.
Mosteghanemi referred to a “Francization” current taking over the reins of power. The French language was inherited under the French occupation 132 years ago, and it remains a part of various aspects of Algerian life, like school, starting in the third grade and reaching into the finance, business and press sectors.
According to the Ministry of Telecommunications, 63 daily newspapers are written in Voltaire’s language, as opposed to 86 newspapers that publish in Arabic.
More than half a century after [Algerian] independence, the French-language defenders still consider it a “war trophy” that they earned, although France itself is gradually relying less exclusively on French. Nevertheless, the Arabized current is still seeking to eliminate the language from education curricula. On that note, activists, alongside the National Organization of Students’ Parents, launched a campaign demanding that French be dropped from school curricula and replaced with the language of science — English.
Within a couple of hours, more than 4,000 people had signed a petition in this regard. The petition was sent to Prime Minister Abdel Malek Sallal, and it included demands for quick intervention to save the Arabic language from slang and French.
The petition, which was posted on the Avaz website, noted that the organizers were seeking signers “to make their voices heard in the Algerian government. The petition will be copied and presented to the concerned parties and the press after gathering the largest number of signatures possible, thus giving it the most strength. French is no longer well established in the world at all levels. This is a plan to build a promising future for our children.”
Amid demands to adopt English as the first foreign language in Algerian schools, educational experts wondered, “Is it possible for us to be more French than France itself, which has issued the publications of the Pasteur Institute in English and includes the latter in its curricula beginning at second grade?” Observers believe that more than half a century after Algeria’s independence, France has been able to deal a blow to Arabic — something it failed to do during its colonization of the country. Notably, France does not advocate the vernacular and insists on keeping its language unified, just like other developed countries.
The researcher and university teacher Noureddine Jawadi (Djamaa) said that the idea of teaching the vernacular or teaching in the vernacular and ultimately standard Arabic or singling it out in the school curricula “is a major cultural mistake and a historical abomination. It is the wrong path to take when it comes to education.” Jawadi claimed that approving the vernacular to be taught is an educational blunder and an example of bad judgment and understanding. It amounts to cultural harassment of the Algerian people.
Algerian Minister of Education Nouria Benghebrit faced down critics with studies on students’ brains conducted by neuroscientists. She reported that use of the mother tongue, or vernacular, in education helps develop important parts of the brain. She added that the results are quite weak from the southern provinces, where students learn Arabic in Quranic schools before going to regular schools, because of the way the language is taught.
With the ongoing intellectual and social conflict, which people interested in education call pointless, Algerian schools remain the biggest victims. It is necessary to search for the underlying causes of the declining level of education in the country year in and year out.
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