Arabic is the first official language of Algeria, but there exists an array of languages and dialects that are spoken across the country. Algerian universities typically use French as the language of instruction, however, primary and secondary schools use standard Arabic. This discrepancy is a direct result of over a hundred years of French colonial rule in Algeria.
In 2016, the Minister of Education, Nouria Benghebrit, suggested that schools adopt French teaching to improve the rough transition a lot of Arabic-speaking Algerians go through for university. This suggestion set off a decades-long debate on the role of the French language in Algerian society.
The French Colonial Role in Shaping the Education System
The French colonization of Algeria began in 1830 with the invasion of Algiers. During this 132 year period of colonization, French influence in Algeria grew with the influx of European settlers, later known as pied-noirs. The Algerian population were forcefully sidelined and made second-class citizens in their own land.
The colonial legislators in Algeria failed to integrate and find a suitable system for the 516 tribes and their different languages and cultures. The local population had to go through many atrocities inflicted by French officials and European settlers (colons). Most importantly, French policies fundamentally altered the way Algierian society functioned.
For instance, the French promoted the use of ‘vernacular Arabic’ instead of ‘literary Arabic,’ which has historically played a role in Islamic education. At the primary school level, Arabic, deemed a “backwards language,” was banned. Furthermore, French colons refused to allocate money towards maintaining madrasahs (Islamic schools) and mosques where most local children were educated. They instead opted to allocate more funds towards European children. As a result, the literacy rates of the local population fell to less than 10% of the population.
Inventing a ‘New Algerian’
Algeria gained its independence in 1962, after almost a decade of war fought between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Much like the other liberation movements of the region, the FLN was primarily an Arab nationalist organization, characterized by its promotion of unity of Arabs and Arab states. Arab nationalist movements often rejected foreign influence from the Western world. After independence, the FLN quickly rose to power and was left to decide on a model of nation-building that would uplift the country. Algerian leaders believed that in order to fill the gap between leadership and the people, they would push the “Arabization” agenda, which would eliminate any space for inequality within Algerian society.
In efforts to produce a new, unified Algerian people, schools were the first institution where Arabization was implemented. They became the perfect place to create a new generation that fostered the nationalist narrative the leaders were hoping to establish. European teachers were replaced by teachers brought in from Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, and Syria.
However, policies of assimilation alienated the indigenous Berbers, often resulting in conflict between Berber and Arab Algerians. In 2016, Berber (or Amazigh) which is spoken by about a quarter of the population, was finally made the second official language of the country. Arabic still remains the only state language.
There are various reasons why the FLN chose Arabic as the national language. After years of mistreatment, Algerians were generally suspicious of the country’s authority. In order to overcome this, the FLN used Islam and its ties to the Arabic langauge to establish legitimacy with the Muslim-majority population. This had considerable support from certain segments of the population, like the ulema (Islamic scholars) who felt that Arabization would make up for the erasure of Islamic values. It was a decision that was also welcomed by the masses at the time.
Struggling with Identity
Professionals in the education sector argue that Algerians have become jacks of all tongues but masters of none. After independence, French remained the language of administration. It was preserved as a language of high status, giving francophones more access to resources such as higher education and jobs.
The different languages of instruction and wide gap between university and school environments has stunted the development of many young Algerians. The politically-charged nature of language has also made it more difficult for kids who come from working class families to pursue higher education. Upper class children are sent to bilingual or French schools while the majority are sent to Arabic schools.
The debate over France’s effect on Algerian language identity continues to be at the forefront of policy making. Far-right political parties, such as the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), want to ban French in all official institutes of the state. On the other hand, secular parties argue that Arabization of the public sector and schools is a “breeding ground” for Islamization.
Some view the French language as ‘spoils of war’, while others see it as providing paths towards modernity. Novelist Malek Haddad elaborates on Algeria’s complicated relationship with French: “it is in French that I first uttered the word independence.” The issue of language has always been tied to the Algerian elite’s political and economic goals. However, Algerian youth are left struggling with the consequences of this ideological polarization.
Conclusion: English as a Decolonizing Tool
In July 2019, the Algerian Minister of Higher Education proposed that English should gradually replace French as the language of instruction in universities. This change has been suggested by many academics as the best “decolonial option” to improve the education system. It is argued that students pursuing post-graduate studies will have more options. However, proponents of adopting English as the language of instruction overlook the political and cultural weight of Arabic and French speaking lobbies in the country. In addition, these alliances are tied to sociocultural divisions and therefore would be hard to overcome. Even after 60 years of independence, Algerians are still dependent on the French language, which acts as a constant reminder of their colonial history.