English in Algerian universities – An ideological choice

The recent plan announced by Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Tayeb Bouzid to make English the primary language in Algerian universities may fizzle out before it goes anywhere, given the difficulties involved in its implementation and the ideological divides determining the debate.

Even if the majority of Algerians, for historical reasons, want to get rid of a language that is synonymous with the period of French colonialism that lasted from 1830 to 1962, the fact remains that this decision will be extremely hard to implement, at least in the immediate future.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the majority of Algerian people speak and use French. In addition, the language issue in Algeria is highly complex because of the history and specifics of the country.

In the Algerian Constitution, two languages are considered national and official: Arabic and Tamazight (Berber). In the past, politicians have taken decisions to Arabise education, in the process creating immense difficulties for the teaching profession and for students.

Starting at the primary level, the other languages, including French, lost their importance, to the point that it became difficult to find foreign language teachers. Even more serious was the outcome: the production of monolinguistic students who had difficulty integrating into the professional environment.

After this little socio-historical reminder, it is useful to sketch the current context in which this recent announcement about English is being debated. Many analysts have endorsed the minister’s populist measures.

For example, Arabic newspaper Echorouk has defended the minister’s decision, arguing that it is justified by the online questionnaire launched by the minister in early July which revealed a 90% approval rate for the proposal.

However, since the announcement of the plan, the minister has tempered his ardour. On 18 August, the ministry sent correspondence to the country’s university rectors asking them to participate in a think tank, which will include specialists and representatives of the administration, to reflect on the issue and make their proposals on the strengthening of the English language in universities as well as improving educational activities and opening up higher education to the international community.

The French-language media have taken a different approach: “After his ‘false good’ idea to abandon French directly to the benefit of English, the minister of higher education and scientific research is backing off," wrote the daily L’Expression newspaper.

The daily El Watan also criticised the approach of the minister, calling it the "umpteenth diversion". The newspaper article drew attention to the fact that the minister, himself a former rector of the University of Batna 2, sent a note to rectors and heads of academic institutions instructing them to use English in the headers of official documents.

"The decision made by the former rector of the University of Batna 2 (2015-19) is part of a project that is close to his heart since taking office on 1 April: gradually replace French with English," it argues.

The article goes on to question the accuracy of the results of the "national poll", with the methodology behind the poll having not been publicly explained, it suggests.

"Driving the nail further, Tayeb Bouzid told the Mentouri University of Constantine on 8 July that ‘French does not get you anywhere!’ He says his decision [about English] was taken ‘at the request of students who want their diplomas recognised abroad, in Japan as an example’."

It is interesting to note that the daily newspapers referred to earlier are French, a language described as the late writer, Kateb Yacine, as the "spoils of war".

The ministry of education has taken over, announcing the launch of a study into the introduction of English in the primary school curriculum (for the moment, the Arabic, Amazigh and French languages are the only ones being taught during the primary cycle).

A survey will also be launched aimed at principals of primary schools to gauge their opinions on the issue. But, already, the minister of education has made clear his own expectations and the choices that should be made. It is reported that regions will be chosen, first, as test areas, before expanding the teaching of English in primary schools.

The widespread application of the English language will not take place in Algeria tomorrow. The debate is far from over and the ideological cleavages are deep, but it goes without saying that any plan needs to be well thought out, starting with the training of teachers to supervise the country’s nine million students. This is not an easy task.

Azzeddine Bensouiah is an experienced Algerian journalist specialising in academic and social issues ( He writes in his personal capacity.