Language in universities – No one-size-fits-all solution

As Algeria moves to replace French with English in universities, in neighbouring Morocco lawmakers have passed a draft education law that will pave the way for strengthening French in pre-university education, overturning decades of Arabisation and raising concerns about threats to cultural identity.

Quoted as saying that “the French language does not get us anywhere”, Algerian Higher Education and Scientific Research Minister Tayeb Bouzid has ordered the country’s 77 universities and higher education institutions to use English rather than French.

It follows the launch in July of a national survey to gauge support for the promotion of English in higher education and scientific research. Released on 5 August, the results suggest that more than 94,000 participants, or 94.03%, expressed their approval for the enhanced use of English.

Meanwhile on 22 July, the Moroccan House of Representatives passed a majority vote on an Education Reform Bill which proposes to have more subjects taught in French in Moroccan schools – as opposed to Arabic.

Article 2 of the bill provides for “the adoption of linguistic rotation” – the teaching of certain subjects, in particular scientific and technical, or parts of certain subjects, in one or more foreign languages.

In opposition to the move, a body of political, civil, human rights and Islamic activists has been formed calling it a violation of the Moroccan constitution, its laws and Moroccan identity, and a “Frenchification” of education, according to a 10 August report.

The Moroccan Constitution stipulates that “Arabic shall remain the official language of the state, which shall protect and develop it and improve its uses. Amazigh is also an official language of the state, as a common asset for all Moroccans without exception.”

Despite the low percentage of Moroccans with French fluency, the country is North Africa’s second highest user of French as 35% of Moroccans speak French (after Tunisia at 52%), according to a 2018 report conducted by the French Language Observatory. Morocco ranks above Algeria (33%) and Mauritania (13%).

Defending the reforms, Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani was quoted by the Middle East Monitor as saying: “In contrast to the exaggerated fuss about the law, for the first time, the Arabic language is introduced in the university education under the compulsory law.”

Currently in Morocco, most high schools and universities teach in French, while the new law stipulates that at least one subject must be taught in Arabic in scientific and medical institutes and faculties. The law also provides for the possibility of introducing units in Arabic, French, Spanish or English.

It also provides for the adoption of “linguistic rotation” in some scientific subjects, which critics have interpreted as approval for the French language.

“The … law does not stipulate … teaching all the subjects in French, but rather insists on linguistic rotation with one or more foreign languages,” Othmani said.

“We are putting [in place] a law for the future, which would open many potentials and areas, and it is arbitrary to interpret the linguistic rotation only in favour of the French language.”

Rosemary Salomone, professor of law at St John’s University, New York in the United States, told University World News the Algerian government’s plan to switch to English instruction in universities was “reasonable”, especially given the broad support shown in the recent poll.

However, there was “no ‘one-size-fits-all’ or ‘all-or-nothing’ resolution to any language policy, especially one that involves English in the post-colonial world”, she said.

Salomone, who is writing a book on the Arabic-English-French-Tamazight question, particularly as it pertains to Morocco and Algeria, also described the Moroccan plan as “reasonable”.

"The Moroccan government's plan to teach science, mathematics and technical subjects in French in secondary school is also reasonable given the fact that these subjects are taught in French in the universities and the current switch from Arabic to French has led to high university dropout rates."

According to Salomone, language policy depends on the history, politics and legal status of the official language or languages in each country along with the extent of the changes and at what level the switch is made.

"You further have to draw the distinction between learning through the language, and learning the language as a separate subject.

“Finally, you have to consider how the ‘people’ define themselves as a nation and their feelings toward France as the ‘coloniser’,” she said.

According to Salomone, “either French, but more likely English, as compared to Arabic would allow Morocco greater access to scientific developments outside the Arab world."

Deena Boraie, vice-president for student life at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, said language decisions at the university level often depend on specialisations or areas of study.

"At the global level, English is the language of science and technology and so it would be logical for universities to choose to use English as the language for instruction to study medicine, computer science, … etc.

"French may be the language of instruction for a field such as law. For example, in Egypt, our legal system is based on the French system and so we have sections in some universities where students obtain their law degrees taught in French," Boraie said.

"I view English as the current international language and as a communication tool that is no longer associated with any country," Boraie said. "When you study English or in English you acquire a set of language skills and competencies besides your native language, that will enable young people to be competitive locally and internationally."

Echoing some of Boraie's views, Algerian Mathematics Professor Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled from École Normale Supérieure in Algiers told University World News: "It is advisable to use foreign languages, especially English, for instruction of scientific fields, especially in the last two years of university education, as English is the most prevalent language for authoring of scientific books and technological research."

On the issue of process, Salomone said both Algeria and Morocco would need to ensure students begin learning the chosen language as a subject early in the primary grades, while switching to instruction through that language by secondary school to provide them with the high-level language skills they need to succeed in university.

"This cannot be done precipitously, as Rwanda learned in switching from French to English. It takes time to develop a corps of teachers both proficient in the language and with the skills to teach through it.”

Cultural identity threat

On the issue of identity, Salomone said both Algeria and Morocco could preserve their Arab identity by teaching Arabic as a separate subject in primary and secondary school while “infusing Arabic history and culture throughout the curriculum”.

Boraie said: "In my view, at the school level, teaching all subjects in a foreign language except for Arabic, religion and social studies does not constitute a threat to Arab identity and culture."

"I believe the threat to Arab identity and culture comes from curricula and learning materials or textbooks that are imported from the West or are designed locally without embedding the Arab country's culture and values within the curriculum frameworks and learning materials.”

She said if teachers in public schools who teach in English are themselves locals or citizens of the country (as they are in Egypt), this would nullify any threat to Arab identity and culture.

However, Boubaker-Khaled disagreed, arguing that “teaching in foreign languages and turning away from [one’s] native language at a young age could be a threat to identity and culture in any part of the world".