Monday, August 10, 2015

Algerian Arabic in schools? More smoke than fire

Conveniently distracting public attention from the recent assassination attempt on the president's brother and the continuing drop in oil prices, Algeria's Minister of Education, Nouria Benghebrit, has recently provoked a stormy debate by announcing that preschool, 1st grade, and 2nd grade would from now on be taught partly in local dialects. (Contrary to some reporting, there is no question of introducing dialectal Arabic as a school subject.) In a TV interview, she points out that nearly 10% of Algerian children repeat second grade, and argues that the solution is for the teacher to make more use of the linguistic abilities they come into school with.

Public opinion in Dellys seems to be overwhelmingly against this move, and I suspect that applies to most of Algeria. The president of the teachers' union (UNPEF) called it "a dangerous precedent" reminiscent of "France's [colonial-era] efforts to erase the pillars of the national identity", while the Association of Muslim Ulama went so far as to call for a school boycott (also here) in the event of its implementation - echoing the strategy by which, twenty years ago, Kabyle activists forced the state to teach Berber in school. However, an independent teachers' union (SATEF) expressed its support, claiming that "in the 1970s Algeria called in Egyptian teachers who taught in Egyptian Arabic and no one said anything". I won't bother with the statements of party politicians, whose easily predictable positions are meaningless to anyone but the few who still take their game seriously; but it is interesting that quite a few journalists seem to have come out in support.

Despite all this noise, however, this move will have no direct consequences (except potentially for Berber speakers), for a simple reason: Algerian primary school teachers already, by necessity, teach largely in dialect. The minister admits as much in the same interview, breaking into French to say that this move will simply "déculpabiliser" the teachers. The more intelligent among her critics, such as Mohamed Djemai, make the same point. The problems Benghebrit points to are real enough - such as massive rates of subject failure in Arabic in completely Arabic-speaking regions - but telling teachers to start doing something that they're already doing is hardly likely to solve them!

Rather than as a change in practice, this statement could be understood as an attempt to move Algeria's Overton window (at least insofar as as it's anything but a distraction). If a government minister can now get away with suggesting publicly that the dialect has a positive role to play in education, then maybe one ten years down the line will be able to make proposals that are currently unthinkable. Whether she can in fact get away with this suggestion, or gets thrown out for it at the next reshuffle, remains to be seen. Algerians often assume that any proposal to improve the status of dialectal Arabic is just a stalking horse for preserving the position of French, so it doesn't help that Benghebrit speaks rather poor Arabic: even her conversational dialectal Arabic sounds rather halting when contrasted with the fluency of her frequent and jarring shifts into French.

So would more dialect in education be a good thing?

The state, and many parents, want all children to learn Standard Arabic, French, and English, in that order. Children's exposure to Standard Arabic is practically limited to school and the cartoons they watch; rather, they speak Algerian Arabic, which shares some basic structure and vocabulary but is still effectively a different language, or Berber, which is radically different. In effect, children are learning Standard Arabic as a second language, as well as French and English. That being the case, the question we need to ask in all three cases (not just for Standard Arabic!) is: is it more effective to teach a second language in the learners' first language, or in the target language, or in a combination of both? Algerians usually assume that the answer is to teach exclusively in the target language. There isn't as much scientific evidence on this question as one might hope, and the question is often debated without any convincing empirical evidence (Bruhlmann 2012 summarises some of this in regards to English teaching). August et al. find that non-English-speakers in English-speaking countries learn to read English better if educated in both languages than if educated only in English; but such students are also extensively exposed to English outside their homes, making the situations less comparable. Any SLA researchers reading this are cordially invited to propose better references.

However, schooling is not just about learning languages. Is it more effective to teach other subjects in students' first language, or in a second language? The answer seems too obvious to bear investigating, but it too has occasionally been investigated - notably in the context of America's bilingual education debate. Both Rolstad et al. (2005) and Slavin and Cheng (2005), usefully summarised here, find that immigrant children in the US learn more if taught bilingually than if taught only in English, even as measured by tests in English. Similarly, students in Hong Kong taught in English (Lo and Lo 2013) were found to perform more poorly in non-language subjects than those taught in Chinese, despite the large difference between the Chinese used in school (Mandarin) and that spoken at home there (Cantonese). So it seems that the obvious conclusion is true: it's easier to learn non-language subjects in your first language (i.e. Algerian dialectal Arabic), and failing that, easier to learn them in a closely related language (i.e. Standard Arabic) than in a very different one (i.e. French). This suggests that dialectal Arabic should play a rather larger role in Algerian schools than almost anyone is willing to consider at the moment.

Quite apart from school performance or school curricula, though - and no matter what the underlying agenda may be - it's nice that Algerian dialectal Arabic is finally getting taken seriously enough for proposals like this to be heard. It may be a shame that most Algerians can only express themselves fluently in this "dialect", but it's a fact - and their voices should not be banished from public debate by their inability to dress their thoughts up in a more prestigious language. A good knowledge of its extensive vocabulary and its complex morphology is an achievement that takes years; why do we insist on treating it as an embarrassment or a sign of ignorance?

One of the most interesting responses to this debate was by a teacher, interviewed by Mohamed Saadoune. She strongly supports teaching in Fusha, not for nationalistic or religious reasons, but simply - because its use lets teachers reassert their authority over the class! "It clearly signals to the student that we are no longer in the street, but rather in a place where we learn, and where there are rules. Putting Standard Arabic into question quite simply signals to the students that there is no longer any difference between the street and the school. This necessary boundary risks being erased." Understandable as it might be given the state of Algerian society, this is a counsel of despair: it presupposes that the way you learn to behave in school has nothing to do with the rest of life! In that case, what good does school do at all? Surely the goal should be, precisely, to erase or at least blur the boundary between school and the street - to make it clear that what you ideally learn at school, including expanded vocabulary and polite behaviour, can and should be applied outside school?


Moubarik said...

The fact that Algerians and Moroccans still oppose education in their national real languages: Berber and Darija, while preferring to teach in non-national languages: Arabic and French, is perplexing to the mind of any outside visitor.

What kind of people refuse and even hate and despise their own national intimate languages?! There has to be something wrong with that people.

And when we look at the complex love/hate relationship Algerians and Moroccans have with French (they hate it theoretically and publicly but they love it practically and secretly), we find another comedic perplexer.

Like that teacher said: Arabic is a means of imposing authority. Indeed.

Talking in tongues to a clueless audience is indeed authoritative and suppressive. You can tell them whatever you want and they will respect it because they don't understand much or most of it - so it must very important, they would think. And they can't respond. It's too embarassing to be feisty and combative in a langauge you don't feel confident with.

Talk to them in their daily simple language and they will be able to detect the lies and the contradictions and they will be able to criticize and respond. The playing field is then level.

When the people's language is the currency of education and politics, people will be able to debate freely, change the system, take the power and defend their rights.

This is the core idea behind defending Berber. The language of the people deserves to rule. Other languages are maybe good for dessert not as the main meal. This core idea is totally missed by Darija-speaking masses because Darija is kind of hijacked by Arabic and is considered by them as a "daughter of Arabic" or as a "low-level/vulgar/corrupt form of Arabic" which neither Darija is.

Imposing non-national languages (i.e. Arabic and French) on the people is a means of keeping them under control. It's not a conspiracy. It happens automatically. The presence of French is obviously feeding on the failures and shortcomings and limitation of literary/religious/Aljazeera Arabic and on the unreadiness of Berber and Darija (due of course to them being banned by state and society!).

So what we got is:

- Arabic: non-popular, non-spoken, weightless in the world of science and biz, absent in mass media (except for the news and cartoons), and imposed as the teaching and writing language in basic education.

- French: semi-popular in Algeria/Morocco, semi-spoken in Algeria/Morocco, a descent weight in global science and biz (dwarfed by English of course), strongly present in a standardized format in mass media (news, French-dubbed US movies, massive French entertainment material, cartoons watched daily by Moroccan/Algerian kids ...etc), and imposed as the teaching language in Algerian and Moroccan universities plus basic education.

Which would win here? French of course. By a landslide.

And who could compete with French in Morocco and Algeria? The pretty much banned and hated Berber langauge? The banned and despised Darija?

I don't think so. They don't stand a chance.

French rules and wil continue to rule and to be wanted and desired by Moroccans and Algerians because Moroccans and Algerians pretty much hate and despise their national intimate languages: Berber and Darija, and they refuse to teach them and teach using them.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

In 50 years, we've gone from a situation where Berber was dismissed as a rustic dialect with no place in the future, much less in the schools, to one where dozens of books in Berber are being published in Algeria every year, and where vehement advocates of Arabic feel obliged to pay their respects to Tamazight teaching (look at the UNPEF statement). Darja doesn't have any similar activist movement behind it, yet its position in society appears nearly impervious to assault - speaking French at home is too "la-tchi-tchi" to be acceptable to most of Algerian society, though a small minority do so - and people's opinions of it have grown visibly more positive over the past 15 years. People aren't emigrating just to France any more; now you have Algerians learning English, Spanish, even Italian. Long term, I think Darja's status will continue to rise, though slowly, and French's monopoly of key positions will continue to erode even more slowly.

Moubarik said...

What I notice is that most educated Algerians and lots of educated Moroccans (both Darija-speakers and Berber-speakers) can't speak 3 consecutive sentences without inserting a French sentence or half-sentence. It's to cover their disabilities with their non-taught mother tongues, and it is due their mother tongues' lack of certain complicated and abstract terms and phrases that only exist in literary languages such as French, Arabic, English...etc

I am noticing an expansion of French not a recession. Morocco is going to start teaching French to kids starting from kindergarten and year 1 of elementary schools. Morocco is also going to teach some science subjects in junior en senior high schools in French.

My impression is that as long as people don't write Berber and Darija and envision them as thinking-languages, none of these 2 languages can hope to be ever taken seriously. I think that Darija being more widely spoken and fast-spreading on the streets is because it's a hybrid language, a bridge-language, the easier pidgin language for all kinds of people and is the closer language to all other languages and corners of society.

Darija is the closest to Berber, the closest to written Arabic, the closest to French socially, the closest to power/state/regime, the closest to the mosque...

But if society or the state decide not to recognize Darija as a real separate language, not to teach it at schools as a written language, and decide to keeps Darija as a bridge-dialect or pidgin only, it will be just that and nothing more. Other languages, including Berber, if generalized nationwide through standard education will (contnue to) occupy higher functions leaving Darija behind. Berber is a truly spoken language (unlike Arabic and French) so it might even come back to drive Darija away from society if (Berber) is well taught and generalized, something Arabic couldn't do for decades and something French could'nt fully do despite both being compulsory and generalized.

What is your vision, Dr Souag, concerning the teaching of languages and their use in teaching? Do you have a comprehensive vision of the roles of Darija, Berber, Arabic and foreign languages in Algeria? Maybe a great subject for a blog article! Proposing a solution is afterall the highest form of critique.


Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I did not realise Morocco was expanding French education to that extent now - I should have guessed when I read that the Moroccan Minister of Education couldn't speak Arabic. I would agree with you that that poses a serious danger to the status of Darija, Berber, and Standard Arabic alike, and I would also predict that this will further impede students from understanding science. In Algeria, when the Ministry of Education attempted to start French in 2nd grade there was a huge furore, and they were ultimately forced to retreat - I would advise Moroccans to make a similar fuss, if it were any of my business.

Re-Francisation of any given sector of education is, thank God, politically impossible for the moment in Algeria - but so is further Arabisation, or for that matter Berberisation, or any other significant action. Yet the current situation, with students changing their language of education between high school and university and with most students unemployable or barely employable after graduation, is obviously unstable in the long run. At some point - perhaps quite soon, if oil prices keep going down - the logjam will break and significant changes will be made, but at that point education is not likely to be the greatest of our worries. What emerges from that is anyone's guess, but just extrapolating from current trends and popular opinions, I would bet on:

- yet more lip service to Standard Arabic, whose influence on Darja will continue to increase but still be overshadowed by that of French
- efforts to replace some of French's current functions with English, probably with only partial success
- further expansion of Berber's functions in Kabylie (probably not elsewhere), without threatening the status of French there
- acceptance of Darja in more and more formal oral contexts (assuming the taboo on French in government functions remains strong enough, which I think is plausible but uncertain), and concurrent development of more formal and authoritarian registers of Darja
- sporadically, more efforts to write Darja; these will be publicly condemned by most of society, and privately enjoyed by the young and irresponsible

But prediction is a fool's game, especially in times like these.

Moubarik said...

Your predictions look very reasonable. It is all kind of happening, except for the writing of Darija which I don't see happening any time soon. I agree that Darija in both countries is being influenced more and more by Arabic (especially in the media) + an increasing influx of French phrases and syntax in daily speech and even in Maghrebi written Arabic (calques).

Personally, I don't like this new-Darija influenced by Arabic at all. So artificial, pretentious and tasteless. A Moroccan Berber writer called it الدارجة المتفصحة. Plus, the French code-switching thing that people do is disgusting to my senses (except in understandable situations like a doctor using French medical terminology). I like to hear the traditional Darija. It's authentic and close to Berber on so many levels. Now it's endangered.

I meant in my question more about what your proposed solution is. What are in your opinion the basics of the best possible linguistic policy that Morocco and Algeria should adopt in education and administration? Because what they're doing right now is not going to get the educational system out of the ocean of mud it is swimming in.

Anonymous said...

Magharba who support Standard Arabic never address the accusation that the virtual 'Académie Arabe' exists only in the Mashreq, our region's authority in this language is second —if at all —to the Mashreq. In that sense Modern Standard Arabic is no different from French. The guardians of this language, those who dominate it exist in a Mashreq bubble, with a siege enforced against the Maghreb's Standard Arabic cultural production. Magharba only participate in Arabic culture as a student of the East. No one can deny that in an Arabic language classroom, in say Algeria or Morocco, the students will experience a Mashreq paternalism and be obliged to identify with an East in a way that the East is spared.

To me, MSA promises as much subjugation to the East as French does to France. The Vernacular on the other hand has no such political implications. Vernacular makes us free from the cultural hegemony of the imperialists and exterior overbearing cultural spheres. The Vernacular is the most responsive to the logic of our environment. This is crucial! The Inuit have 50 words for snow, we don't because unlike them, the logic of our environment insists on no such emphasis on that particular of reality. A language is for labelling reality. Realities are different. Our reality is different from the East's. However Standard Arabic responds to the logic of an Eastern environment perfectly, after all it was standardized in the East with no Algerian input whatsoever. The argument that Arabic should be supreme in ours lands as it qualifies as an ancestral language is only half true. Our ancestors did not speak this Standardized Arabic of the 19th century Mashreq, this language was imported to our lands under the auspices of Arabism by foreign teachers.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

In education:
- Stipulate outcomes, not methods. As long as the school gets a high enough pass rate on an independent exam testing whatever it is that all 18-year-olds need to know to safeguard our future and our national identity or whatever, schools should be able to teach in whatever way - and whatever language - the teachers and parents think is best. It's painful to hear about teachers trying to teach reading phonetically and being scolded by inspectors for not using the long since disproved whole-word method that the Algerian Ministry of Education (insanely) happens to prefer.
- Take advantage of the resulting variation to test which methods are more effective - including which languages of instruction - and publicise the results.
- Pay teachers enough to be able to pick and choose and hire only the good ones. Conversely, fire existing bad teachers.
- Hire more teachers. (That applies maybe more in Morocco than in Algeria or Tunisia, which already have plenty of teachers in terms of quantity, just not in terms of quality.)

I've occasionally addressed that issue - people "translating" مرقاز into the Greek loanword نقانق. The most immediate obvious solution is to do what the Egyptians do rather than what they say, and feel free to introduce any useful Darja words into our Fusha as convenience dictates without worrying about whether Middle Easterns will laugh or not.