Sunday, March 10, 2013
Review: La question linguistique en Algérie
I just finished reading Benmayouf's (2009) La question linguistique en Algérie. It was... interesting. The narrative this book presents is easy to summarise, although when stated baldly it verges on self-parody: By 1930 or so, Standard Arabic had practically vanished from Algerian life, apart from the Friday sermon. At independence, most literate Algerians were literate in French; but, tragically though inevitably, the revolutionary government opted to make Standard Arabic the official language, and tried to Arabise the educational system. The beleaguered Francophones found their job security threatened and their students demotivated, and the level of French spoken in the country dropped lower and lower. The new generation, having been deprived of the salutary effects of French culture and brought up to hate everything foreign, became Islamists and terrorists, leading to the civil war of the 1990s. "The individual produced by the Algerian school is a rigid being with no value but Islam, radically opposed to his open-minded father nourished by French school." (p. 76!) But after 1988, the government gradually woke up to the political and economic dangers of Arabisation, and started expanding the use of French; meanwhile, the satellite dish enabled millions of ordinary Algerians to watch French media. Apart from a few dangerous attacks on the position of French – such as the introduction of English as a third language in schools – the future is now bright, under the leadership of our "enlightened" president (p. 108). Eventually, she hopes (p. 118), Standard Arabic will be limited to the role of a liturgical language, while French comes to occupy an even more important place than it does today, and Algerian Arabic gets recognised as the language that binds the nation together. But it's French which is crucial: it not only "satisfies a need for modernity that none of the local languages can handle" but constitutes "a maquis in which resistance develops to every form of constraint, oppression or denial." (p. 98) This view, of course, ignores a long history of Standard Arabic in Algeria – the zaouias' continued presence even after the French confiscated most of their land, the manuscripts and imported books of my grandfather's generation, the excellent work of Ben Badis and the Association of Ulema starting in 1931, the expanding ranks of Arabophone intellectuals and writers since independence (tellingly, she finds time to mention Jean Amrouche but not Ahlam Mostaganemi), and even the satellite dishes tuned to Arabic channels. If Francophone professors and officials have felt threatened by institutional Arabisation, their extremely successful efforts to hold it back in turn denied (and deny) positions to the much more numerous Arabophone graduates. The social tensions caused by this did help set the stage for the violence of the 1990s, but that can hardly be blamed on Arabic, let alone caricatured in the terms above. As for her vision of the future, I would consider it close to a worst-case scenario. Her tactical and qualified support for Algerian Arabic does not entail actually using it for anything important; while rather hostile to Standard Arabic as a medium for university education, she takes it for granted that French is appropriate in that context, and indeed is the perfect vehicle for anything related to modernity. But, frankly, I do not want a French-language-mediated "transfer of modernity from the north shore to the south shore of the Mediterranean" (p. 118); I want an Algeria with the self-confidence and self-awareness to learn from a variety of examples and choose its own path, not mechanically follow in France's footsteps. Nor do I believe that relegating "modernity" to a foreign language is likely to help Algeria achieve it! Nonetheless, I'm glad I read the book. It's fascinating – if sad – to discover that there exists an Algerian intellectual prepared to take a position this extreme in favour specifically of French; I don't believe I've ever met one. Could one find a corresponding phenomenon in France, I wonder – some professor eagerly advocating for more English in the bureaucracy and the universities, and condemning supporters of French as narrow-minded nationalists? It's difficult to imagine... But what this book mainly leaves me wondering, to be frank, is: why on earth does the author feel this way? And that points the way towards a more anthropologically oriented book that I really would like to see. A person's feelings towards a language are shaped by memories – a mother's voice or a teacher's scolding, a story you couldn't put down or a tedious manual, a group that you hung out with or couldn't stand. To really understand the wide variation in Algerian language attitudes, we need to go beyond the political history and into experiences of learning and living the languages.