Algeria education reform highlights deep sensitivities about identity
ALGIERS - Apparently modest reform proposals for primary education in Algeria have touched off a firestorm of protest, highlighting deep sensitivities about language and identity half a century after independence from France.
Standard Arabic has been the North African nation's sole official language since 1962, even though virtually no Algerians have it as their mother tongue and it has to be learnt at school.
A little over a quarter of the population speak dialects of the Berber language, also widely spoken in neighbouring Morocco.
Nearly all the rest speak dialects of Arabic that are heavily influenced by French and Spanish as well as Berber.
Education Minister Nouria Benghebrit has proposed that for the first two years of primary school, teachers be allowed to give lessons in dialect to help children master the standard language.
She says that generations of children have had their educations blighted by the shock of being taught exclusively in a language they cannot speak.
There are many countries where the language of education differs from that of the home.
But in few parts of the world is the issue as charged as in Algeria, where political discourse is still dominated by the bloody eight-year war to break away from France and forge an Arab and Islamic nation.
Benghebrit's proposals have drawn accusations from nationalists and Islamists alike that she is dishonouring the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Algerians who lost their lives and "betraying the cause they fought for".
Islamist lawmakers of the Green Alliance demanded her immediate dismissal.
For Benghebrit, the proposals, which stem from the recommendations of a national conference on education standards held in Algiers late last month, are simply about improving schooling for children.
She says that Algerian children suffer educationally and developmentally by not being taught in their mother tongue.
"By using a child's mother tongue in schooling, you develop an important part of the brain," she told the El-Watan newspaper, citing neurologists.
"To increase the linguistic abilities of children, you have to build on their mother tongue."
Benghebrit said the current system left many pupils at a disadvantage throughout their studies.
"If children do not master the Arabic language used in school, they will not achieve good grades, in maths and sciences included."
The minister has the backing of Algeria's chief inspector for teaching methods, Farid Benramdane.
"You have to introduce academic Arabic gradually," Benramdane told El Khabar newspaper.
"The child must not be subjected to any shock in discovering that the language of school is not that of the home," he said.
- 'Purity of the language' -
But any use of dialect in the classroom, even as an aid to teaching Standard Arabic, is anathema to the conservatives who have controlled the education ministry for most of the years since independence.
They have rounded on Benghebrit's French education -- she studied sociology in Paris -- and accused her of wanting to return Algeria to the colonial era when they say dialect was encouraged in a bid to undermine Arab nationalism.
The Muslim clergy, or ulema, charge that her proposals threaten to sully the language of the Koran.
Association of Ulema official Amar Talbi urged "civic groups and cultural associations to defeat this proposal so that we can preserve the purity of the language and protect it from any threat".
Language policy has proved controversial throughout Algeria's modern history.
Berber was finally recognised as a national, but not an official, language in 2002, allowing it to be taught as a second language in some Berber areas.
But even that reform came only after decades of protests in the most populous Berber-speaking region, Kabylie, east of Algiers, many of which were bloodily suppressed.
And while French remains the main language of business and scientific education, conservatives have repeatedly tried to reduce its role too.
In 1998, the then government adopted a law imposing the exclusive use of Standard Arabic in all institutions.
But its implementation has been postponed indefinitely because of the practical difficulties of entirely abandoning the language of the colonial power.