Algeria seeks to replace French with English at university, sparks ‘language war’

Algerian High Education Minister Tayeb Bouzid said “the French language does not get us anywhere.”
Saturday 03/08/2019
Algerian students receive lecture at the Research Centre for Economics Applied to Development Rachid Sidi Boumedienne in Algiers. (AFP)
Language politics. Algerian students receive lecture at the Research Centre for Economics Applied to Development Rachid Sidi Boumedienne in Algiers. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algerian Higher Education Minister Tayeb Bouzid declared that “the French language does not get us anywhere” and ordered the country’s 77 universities and higher education institutes to use English rather than French.

The move, designed as a step towards having English replace French as the dominant foreign language in Algeria, sparked fierce debate about the country’s strong linguistic and cultural ties to France 57 years after the end of French colonial rule that lasted 130 years.

For secularist intellectuals, the decision to encourage the use of English at the detriment of French was a gambit by army-backed authorities to reach out to Islamists who see French as the secularists’ bridge to the West contrary to English, which they perceive as their connecting link to Islamist constituencies in much of the world.

Anti-Islamists in Algeria argue that Arabisation of the country’s education system after independence turned schools into “factories of Islamisation,” establishing Islamists as a strong political force. They warned that French is a “window to modernity” for Algeria that would be shut and cut the country off from benefits of the “accumulation of human capital” generated by the use of French in Algeria.

Supporters of making English the main foreign language said the change is necessary for “Algeria’s cultural independence” because domination of French in business, higher education and culture stifled the national Arab and Amazigh languages.

They expressed worries that “hastiness and populism” fuelled by political pressures in implementing programmes to develop use of English at universities could doom plans to elevate cultural and scientific standards through the spread of English.

They blamed “populism” on failing to make Arabic the dominant national language since 1960s and roll back French as the main tool of business and culture.

Thousands of Algerians take French language exams each year to be eligible to apply for admission to universities in France. About 23,000 Algerians are enrolled in French universities, making up 8% of France’s foreign students.

By Algerian law, official documents are written in Arabic and education at all levels and all learning specialities are in Arabic. Government officials must address the public in Arabic.

“Within the framework of the policy to encourage and strengthen the use of English to give better visibility of education and scientific activities in the higher education system, I urge you to use both Arabic and English in official documents,” Bouzid wrote to university rectors.

Backers of the move said developing English needed more than a ministerial order because a language required building blocks to spread.

Muslim Arabs and later the French were among Algeria’s only conquerors who had greatest linguistic and cultural effect on the country. Their educational and administrative systems helped them impose their respective languages.

“The French language is not limited to cultural space, as the minister implied. Algeria is part of a French-speaking environment. France is our main partner in several fields and our neighbours Tunisia and Morocco use French,” said political writer Makhlouf Mehenni.

“Replacing French with the English language is taking the risk of severing Algeria’s ties from its environment and isolating it.”

Some cultural and political figures argue, however, that Algeria as a mature country must look the situation in a new light.

“The problem Algeria faces is not the one over the role of Arabic and various Tamazight Berber tongues but the problem is the one related to the French language whatever the qualities given to it and its role in maintaining a window open to Algeria towards modernity,” said former minister and French-speaking writer Mourad Benachnou.

“Algeria is not condemned to push the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ to its extreme that links to France. It would be a linguistic and cultural suicide for Algeria.”

Algiers University instructor Abdelhamid Charif said the move to expand the use of English was overdue.

“English is an unavoidable language because it controls more than 75% of the world flow of scientific knowledge and 90.7% of fundamental science,” he said. “The international visibility of our universities, their ranking and their attractiveness and the job opportunities of university graduates will gain from the English language.

“As a second language and language for education, English will crush every competing language.”

However, writer Amine Zaoui said the move to spread English was “a ruse” to split protesters.

“More than half a century after its independence Algeria is awakened by another linguistic war. It is a new version of linguistic wars that had consumed the school, the political class, the intellectuals and even the mosques,” he said in references to disputes over languages in 1970s and 1990s.

“This new war in the middle of the protests is between French and English. It targets the top ladder of the education system: universities.”

Before the decision to encourage English use at universities, it had been making progress in Algeria following economic and social dynamics. Some ministries, such as defence and energy, encouraged employees to learn English to interact with foreign counterparts. Wide access to the internet has helped spread English.