Students as victims of a national language malaise

Is the inability of Algeria to decide on a dominant language impeding the potential of its graduates and stunting economic and social development?

An article published in The Economist earlier this year seems to suggest so. It quotes publisher Selma Hellal saying that young people in Algeria were “victims of language policies which have undermined our ability to express ourselves”.

Language is a sensitive and controversial issue in Algerian politics and also in the education system.

“It is hard to deny the existence of a language malaise,” said Abderrezak Dourari, professor of language sciences in the translation department of the University of Algiers. “Algerians do not speak any language correctly, despite their linguistic dispositions,” he said. “The study of popular languages and cultures has long been banned under various pretexts or considerations related to ‘national unity’,” making it difficult for Algerians to become familiar with other foreign languages.

The linguistic landscape of Algeria, a product of its history and geography, is characterised by the coexistence of several languages and dialects: Berber or Tamazight (with several varieties such as Kabyle, Chaoui, Mozabite, Targui, Chenoui, etc), Arabic and French.

However, according to Khaoula Brahimi, professor of linguistics at Algiers University 2, this coexistence is proving to be tumultuous and often leads to confrontation, given the way language is closely tied up with cultural identity, and against the backdrop of relations of domination and tendencies towards stigmatisation.

“The relationship between different languages is also strained by the effects of a centralizing policy that exacerbates the stakes in the Algerian identity problem,” said Brahimi.

In universities and schools, the issue over the medium of instruction remains unresolved and “keeps shifting from Arabic to French in an uncoordinated and sometimes anti-pedagogic manner”, she said.

After 132 years of colonisation by the French, it has been impossible to get rid of the French language in favour of Arabic, according to Mansour Benchehida, professor of language at Mostaghanem University, 350 kilometres west of the capital Algiers.

“It is hard to deny the positive role and place of French language in our society,” he said. Differences of opinion are many, he noted, referring to Kateb Yacine, a prominent writer who once described French as ‘spoils of war’. On the other side of the debate is Mohammed Dib, another well-known writer, who confessed: “I did not experience a rift between the two cultures, but opportunities multiplied.” Novelist Malek Haddad, writing in the 1970s, said: “It is in French that I first uttered the word independence.”

However, for official authorities, the continued privileging of the French language in Algerian schools, colleges and universities after independence in 1962, was considered an insult to the country’s martyrs, according to Dr Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, a former minister of education.

“The adoption of Arabic in the educational system was deemed unequivocal and irrevocable because it fitted within the cultural revolution, which aimed to create a new citizen living in an independent Algeria,” he said.

Ibrahimi said in spite of fierce opposition from lobbies among politicians, intellectuals and artists, the country was totally committed to implementing the Arabic language at all levels of education. The Arabisation process aimed at giving the Arabic language a dominant position in the newly independent country began by reducing the presence of European and mainly French teachers, and replacing them with teachers from Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia and Syria.

The classical Arabic language was therefore used widely in primary schools while French tuition was limited. In secondary schools, Arabic was extended to the teaching of mathematics, physical sciences and natural sciences, while at university these courses were still taught largely in French.

However, during the 1980s, social sciences at university were taught in Arabic and this produced hundreds of pioneering graduates who held first degrees that had been taught exclusively in Arabic.

Ironically, most of them found it hard to get a job as public institutions, administrations and economic enterprises still required French language proficiency. “It was a deadlocked situation,” said Salah Guemriche, presently in charge of a human resources department in a private bank in Algiers, and holder of an industrial psychology first degree from the social sciences faculty in Algiers in 1981.

“I spent four years working very hard and in precarious conditions and then at the end of the day, we were confronted with the reality of unemployment as we could not meet recruitment requirements and missed many opportunities. I was fortunate; I found a job but it was not the case for many of my friends who either went abroad or changed direction completely,” she said.

Linguistic challenges

Guemriche said in the mid-1980s students went on a general strike at all universities for almost one year, to force the government to adopt urgent measures to implement Arabisation in public institutions and administrations.

However, despite this challenge, the situation has not improved since, according to Ahmed Kadri, professor of law and practising attorney in Algiers.

Another linguistic challenge arose in the 1980s when the Berbers demanded full recognition of Tamazight, which led to the introduction of the language into primary and secondary schools. At higher education level, several universities in the country – Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and Bouira – only offered courses in Tamazight literature.

Although Arabisation was a political decision, according to Abdelkader Saidi, professor of linguistics at Algiers University,1, on the ground, graduated students from social sciences still face several recruitment obstacles.

“They have to accept what is offered in the market," said Salim Benamar, officer at the national agency of employment in Algiers. "The labour market is very demanding in terms of language skills, especially English for international companies operating in hydrocarbons and oil,” he said.

“The relation between language proficiency and job-relevant qualifications remains an issue for many applicants. Even those who graduated in sciences, physics and mathematics are still in need of language learning,” he said.

Although sciences and mathematics are taught in French, according to Said Benhamoud, an engineer in physics from the University of Sciences and Technology Houari Boumediene, many students struggled because of the linguistic problem. “It was hard for them to follow; they are not quite familiar with formulas and equations which need a clear formulation, composed of rich terminology,” said Benhamoud.

In an attempt to provide a lasting solution to the language issue, in 2008 the Algerian government passed a national education orientation law with the main aim being to “enable students to have a fair command of at least two foreign languages as an opening to the world and a means of access to documentation and exchanges with foreign cultures and civilizations”.

The bill also insisted on the need for mastery of foreign languages, and its reintroduction into scientific branches in higher education colleges and universities.

Regarding the Arabic language, the law calls for its real reform in terms of content and teaching methods in order to catch up with modern languages, particularly in terms of scientific research and development.

Despite these initiatives there remains a serious linguistic disjuncture between Algerians in different levels and sectors of society. In a 2011 journal article Rezig Nadia noted that “the Arabisation long-term policy with its political and cultural dimensions created a big gap between the general education (from primary to secondary school) and the university that prepares the students for their professions”.

In the more recent Economist article, the author wonders if frustration over language is to blame for rising violence against lecturers at universities.

For Samir Tahri, a student in the department of translation at Algiers University 1, English could offer a third way for universities – as the “language of research par excellence”.

However, as tempting as this option seems, it overlooks the political and cultural weight of Arabic and French-speaking lobbies all taking part in the ongoing Algerian linguistic battle.