Friday, March 08, 2013

The language of academia: Algeria and France

I work in France now. When I give an internal lecture, I normally do it in French - poor French, to be sure, but French. If I attend a local conference, I can usually assume that at least some of the presentations will be in French. The handful of classes I've taught here, I taught in French. Needless to say, all the internal paperwork (of which, thankfully, there isn't that much) is written in French, and I am expected to fill it out in the same language. This is not particularly convenient for me, but I expect it and approve of it. Most French academics have to speak English to be able to do their jobs well, of course. But if they shifted to using English in all contexts and relegated French to informal conversation in coffee breaks, then French academia, while it would be more hospitable to Anglo-Saxon academics, would become far less hospitable to its own citizens, who after all are the ones paying for it!

This experience is one reason why I feel very little sympathy towards complaints of the following type about Algerian academia:

"[W]e have come to a point where Arabisation is used as a means to exclude Francophones from the management of the country's affairs, with an eye towards expelling them from their posts, as seems to be the case at the university level. [T]he requirement for occupying a position of responsibility is no longer ability, but mastery of the literary language. Events such as the following confirm this state of affairs: during the strike that affected the University of Constantine in December 1988, among the demands made was a demand to replace the Chancellor and his team, bilingual, with Arabophones. [A]. Debbih [r]ecalls that already in 1975 'a movement brandished the slogan "Arabisation + Bread"... In this strategy there appear the signs of a real takeover: posts would go not to those who merit them, but to those who use Arabic, the "language of authenticity", the "language of the people".'" (Benmayouf 2009:67; my translation)

Let's shift perspectives for a second. Since 1988, the large majority of every new year's crop of university students has gone through their whole prior education being taught in Arabic, whether you approve of that or not. This was expected since well before 1988, so there was plenty of time to prepare for it; in fact, the policy of Arabising education had been consistently proclaimed since before independence, and has enjoyed widespread popular support in most parts of the country. A primary job of a university professor is to teach these students. Under the circumstances, is it really plausible to suggest that knowledge of Arabic is just an irrelevant distraction from academic ability? Yet, not just in 1988 but now, 25 years later, at least half the subjects on offer are still being taught in French. How would an ordinary English-speaking freshman - even one who had studied German in high school - react if he heard that all national universities' courses in medicine were henceforth to be taught in German?

References Benmayouf, Chafia Yamina. 2009. La question linguistique en Algérie : enjeux et perspectives. Biarritz: Séguier.


U-Savaw said...

The situation about Algeria's educational system is weird, why in university the language is suddenly change ?
We got enough time in the past to set up a coherent educational system like the one in Canada or Belgium : having Arabic-cursus in Arabic-speaking regions and Amazigh-speaking academia in regions with substantial Amazigh-speaking communities (complusory in Kabylie instead of French for instance).

I am not against PhDs or Masters taught in English as well, one should acknoweldge that English has much more academic ressources than French in "pure" sciences, corporate matters and even Private Law or Religion.

David Marjanović said...

the internal paperwork (of which, thankfully, there isn't that much)

...Are you sure you're in France? :-)

(But then, you probably don't belong to 3 or 4 institutions simultaneously like my thesis supervisor did.)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

@U-Savaw (axir!): Exactly; but Arabisation/Amazighisation of the universities has not only not progressed much over the past 25 years, but even reversed itself in some ways. This does not bode well for Algeria's future. For doctorates it's a bit different: depending on the subject, writing it in a foreign language may be essential so that peers abroad can read and judge the work.

@David: I've been lucky so far, but I understand it can get a good deal more complicated...

David Marjanović said...

depending on the subject, writing it in a foreign language may be essential so that peers abroad can read and judge the work.

Specifically, English, like my thesis (which consisted of papers almost all of which are now published).

U-Savaw said...

Once people will write on their own language(s) this issue will be over. But most of Algerians have an insecurity towards writing in their own language, I rarely see Darija properly written in Arabic script/or written Tamazight outside militant circles.
It is like our vernacular languages are not supposed to be written, at least Darija has a dachsprasse to rely on but not so much Tamazight and yet solutions exist for that matter.

David Marjanović said...



U-Savaw said...

I wrote it in a hurry, sorry.