Saturday, April 25, 2009

French among Algeria's elite

The key issue in Algerian linguistic politics - substantially overshadowing the question of the role of Berber - is what should be the language of bureaucracy and education: Standard Arabic (the official language, and the primary pre-colonial language of literacy for all Algeria) or French (the colonial language, and hence ironically the language which most of the few educated Algerians at independence had studied in.) In practice, it's settled on the one setup most certain to minimise social mobility: Standard Arabic is the primary language of education and symbolism, and French of bureaucracy and social climbing. On top of that, the language of everyday life is Algerian Arabic or Berber, from either of which reaching fluency even in Standard Arabic, let alone the much more different language French, is an uphill struggle.

I recently came across a very illustrative quote from a survey specifically focusing on minor political actors in Algeria - party cadres, journalists, bureaucrats, businessmen, trade unionists, etc:
"To a limited extent, the only space open to [political] actors with little or no knowledge of French were independent unions, independent NGOs, the Arabic press and Islamist parties. This tendency was illustrated by the fact that third-generation elites barely speaking French - only one out of ten interviewees - came from one of these domains. Most other interviewees were either Francophone or bilingual, the latter having difficulties determining which language they considered to be their mother tongue [a footnote suggests she means "primary language"]. The same interviewee often gave different answers depending on whether he filled in this author's questionnaire prior to the interview, or whether he was asked in the course of an interview what language he felt most comfortable speaking and writing. A huge majority of the third-generation interviewees according to their own assessment were better with written French than Standard Arabic. As far as oral skills went, a third of the interviewees said they spoke Standard Arabic as well as or better than French. Over half the interviewees put their oral French skills at the same level as their command of Algerian Arabic or Kabyle Berber dialect, and one out ten claimed to speak French better than anything else." (Isabelle Werenfels, Managing Instability in Algeria, pp. 85-6)
This kind of situation is a recipe for resentment. The government has spent years educating people to be better at Standard Arabic and telling them that it was everyone's duty to use it rather than French; but unfortunately their passion for reform, after creating legions of eager Standard Arabic-using job-seekers, stopped at the gates of the Civil Service. Check out Algerian government websites sometime - many of them don't so much as have Arabic versions (eg Energy, Health, CNRC Finance), and most default to French.

As always, I think language skills should be a barrier only when they're necessary in themselves, not merely as a badge of class membership (and regionalism - people from Algiers or Kabylie are enormously more likely to speak good French than people from, say, the Sahara.) I'd certainly prefer Standard Arabic to French - it's much more like Algerian Arabic than French is, and more a part of Algeria's identity - but in the long run it would be better to create a situation where people could use their own mother tongue for official purposes.


Antonin & Damia said...

But then, the Algerian elites love the emigration opportunites fluent French gives them...

Anonymous said...

The reality is that Algerian society is pluralist: in its regions, its languages, its attitudes to the past and the future, and its view of the west and the Arab world. So far, this diversity has never been properly acknowledged, in the context of a general will to live with one another.

For a large part of the Algerian population, arabisation has come to symbolise waste, mess and educational failure. The linguistic policy pursued by Algiers has always been dictated primarily by political objectives. But aside from these imperatives, the authorities show no interest in the educational side, no desire to give Arabic its true value by encouraging historical research and reflection.

The real scandal is the government’s failure—in a universe of languages that reflect the plurality of Algerian society—to try to create a space for tolerance, openness, efficiency and respect for differences—the true framework for democracy.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

"For a large part of the Algerian population, arabisation has come to symbolise waste, mess and educational failure." True - and for another large part of the Algerian population, French has come to symbolise elitism and exclusion. Grandguillaume's article, with its focus on the ideology of this controversy, misses the more important point - its impact on access to power and wealth. Certainly it's cruel and silly the way the government keeps trying to make Algerians (including the minority that prefer French) feel ashamed of the way they talk. But that is not nearly as big a problem as what Grandguillaume himself calls "the francophone classes['s]... virtual monopoly of power". At present, Algerians can't find decent jobs in their own country, dealing exclusively with their own fellow citizens, without having to learn a foreign language. Pluralist attitudes are desirable in themselves, but - as long as the government continues to dominate the economy - they won't solve that problem.

محمد إدريس said...

I agree with you that the elites in Algeria, Morocco and perhaps Tunisia use French to deny their fellow citizens access to power and wealth. I think these elites will continue to use, or misuse, French even if it becomes extinct in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Quebec. They use French for internal purposes.

I checked out the sites you posted and I was surprised that site of the Ministry of Energy and Mining is available in French and English only. That means that the site is rather directed at the few Algerians who speak French and at foreigners. The local masses have no business visiting it. (By the way, CNRC is available in Arabic).

You wrote that “...the language of everyday life is Algerian Arabic or Berber, from either of which reaching fluency even in Standard Arabic, let alone the much more different language French, is an uphill struggle.” Toward the end of your entry you mentioned that “I'd certainly prefer Standard Arabic to French - it's much more like Algerian Arabic than French is...” I think the two statements somehow contradict themselves. It may be true that reaching fluency in Standard Arabic is for the average Arab not a very easy thing to do, but it can’t be described as an uphill struggle. The degree of foreignness between Algerian Arabic and Standard Arabic and that between Algerian Arabic and French is certainly not the same. Even speakers of Berber should find it less difficult to acquire Standard Arabic than it is to acquire French.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I had missed the tiny little Arabic icon on CNRC - thanks for pointing that out. I've put Finance instead.

As for Arabic - like I said, Standard Arabic should be easier for an Algerian to learn than French, all other things being equal. But that certainly doesn't mean it's easy - if it were, a lot more people would actually be fluent in it, whereas in fact even most educated people can't get i3rab right, nor talk about ordinary daily life (as opposed to politics and religion) without using Algerian Arabic.

محمد إدريس said...

You are welcome.

As for Standard Arabic, it’s not only the Algerians who regard it as rather hard to master. It’s all Arabs. However, I think this is the result of low standards of education rather than an inherent difficulty in the language itself. Moreover, if 100% fluency is not within our reach, it doesn’t mean that we should not aim for it. We may end up with 70 to 80% fluency in Standard Arabic, which is totally fine. After all, the problem of ‘La7n’ has been with us for a very long time.

Panu said...

There is also the problem that surprisingly little literature is translated into, or published in, Standard Arabic. The reason why people want to become literate in a standard language, the incentive, is much wwaker than it should be. In a way it is understandable that elites should prefer French.

I guess this is politics. Arab governments censure books, and Islamists are not too fond of secular literature either, I am afraid. Myself, I have at several occasions suggested that the EU should commission a program of translating both classical European literature and scientific texts into Classical Arabic for the benefit of immigrants, but as yet it has not elicited a reaction.

Ammar said...

In Algeria as in all the Maghreb, French and Standard Arabic are imposed on the Population for political agenda. These two languages are totally disconnected from the population and are supported by the political and “intellectual” elites only. The strategies based on this two languages have failed to deliver and will continue to do so. The only alternative I can see, is the rehabilitation of the most natural languages for this region: Maghrebi Arabic (Darja) and Berber (Tamazight). These are the only two native languages that can succeed in this region while preserving the North African identity. Darja in particular has the vitality, the flexibility, and the right to occupy the primary role in the education, official, and media spheres. It has the potential to develop into an efficient and modern language. It is de-facto a consensus language in this region. Darja has also the capacity to accommodate its sister language Tamazight, and to be open to an enrichment from other languages.

Anonymous said...

The only difference between Morocco and Algeria on this is that the grip of French on the Algerian society is stronger. In both countries it is seen as a privilege to mumble in French. No matter what nonsense you say in French has more value to it than if you've said it in Amazigh for example.

In Morocco, urban regions of Berber-speaking majority are less "Francophonized" than urban Darija areas. In Algeria, the more intellectual Kabylia sees French as an escape ticket from the undesired pan-Arab culture.

But still, both Darija and Standard Arabic are safe and are even benefitting well from the system, with strong presence in education and media. The real victim here is Tamazight, plain and simple.

I also think that the presence of French makes the position of Tamazight even weaker in front of Arabic. If we managed to get rid of French and replace it with the historically-neutral English, the elite will lose its edge and advantage, and the society would turn the French era's page and start thinking about its Amazigh identity.

Remember that Arabization was largely facilitated by the French occupation, indirecly in Algeria and directly in Morocco.

Moubarik Belkasim

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

As far as I'm concerned, the real victim of this setup is the people impoverished and excluded by it - languages matter, but lives matter more.

Why have speakers of Tamazight been abandoning the language in so many cities, and sometimes even towns? I'd like to hear what you think, but the impression I've gotten is that it has most to do with social norms - with a contemptuous attitude, absorbed from Arabophone city folk and outsider teachers, that Tamazight is a "hick" language that's not appropriate for "civilised" life. And ironically, I've met Algerians (born and raised in Algeria) whose Darja-speaking parents spoke to them only in French or only in Fusha because they held pretty much the same attitudes towards Darja. That internalised self-contempt threatens Tamazight perhaps most of all, but it hurts everyone.

Afifay said...

A (self) contemptuous attitude that Tamazight (and Darja btw) is a "hick" language that's not appropriate for "civilised" life

That internalised self-contempt ... hurts everyone
Since people are conforming to social norms, they are doing it unconsciously so as to feel safe in not being singled out as "the odd one out". Apart from that minority monopolising education and the media, profiting unduly from the system and keeping people away from their natural languages so as to maintain the lucrative status quo, few people would disagree with you ... if they were conscious !
I think it is more of a psychological obstacle but what is the therapy to surmount it ? It just gives you a feeling of miserable helplessness.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Mr. Souag, that the system views Berber as an uncivilized language. That pushes the locals to submit and learn the regime's languages (Arabic and French) and even adopt them. That's becasue they depend on the "mercy" of the regime.

But in cities with large Amazighophone populations like Nador, Agadir, Tizi Ouzzu, this regime-driven assimilation does not succede in destroying the traditional fabric of language and culture because the "street-weight" of the language overpowers the system..

In Nador e.g. you can now use Amazigh langauge in banks and administartions because there are Berberophone working there, they are part of the system and they may change it from the inside.

Moubarik Belkasim

John Cowan said...

"'Málin eru höfuðeinkenni þjóðanna -- Languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own; let the languages perish and the peoples perish too, or become different peoples. But that never happens except as the result of oppression and distress.'

These are the words of a little-known Icelander of the early nineteenth century, Sjéra Tomas Sæmundsson, He had, of course, primarily in mind the part played by the cultivated Icelandic language, in spite of poverty, lack of power, and insignificant numbers, in keeping the Icelanders in being in desperate times. But the words might as well apply to the Welsh of Wales, who have also loved and cultivated their language for its own sake (not as an aspirant for the ruinous honour of becoming the lingua franca of the world), and who by it and with it maintain their identity."

--J.R.R. Tolkien, "English and Welsh"

David Marjanović said...

No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own;

Tradition and religion can occasionally suffice. Take Serbs and Croats (and the Muslims of Bosnia, declared a separate people by Tito the way Mao did for the Chinese-speaking Muslims), or the Võro (Protestant) and Seto (Orthodox) of southern Estonia. Or of course the situation in Northern Ireland, where few people speak Gaelic.

Bavarians and Franks on the other hand... ;-)

Mnemonician said...

Hello I am Sha!
I really like & love the arabic as a "Language".
The impression I got immediately after I
completed MA English was that I should have
studied "Arabic".
I have grown a strong passion and attachment
for Arabic and the Arabs. How much it can last?
This is what i don't know nor am much sure about
but if your gals and guys out there help me, my
love might become fruitful for me.
Why do i like and love arabic and the Arabs?
This is sort of expansive questions.
I only know that Arabic is soft, smooth
and melodius.
The Arabs are loving, sincere and sobre.
Well, what I don't know is if they are
lovers of their language too or not.
I aspire to someday talk fluently in arabic.
Talk to my friends. But can i attract Arabic
-speakers to my self by speaking their lang-
uage is yet another thing to be experienced
Arabic is the language of the Muslims but i do
believe ALLAH will hear and help me even when
i speak my mother tongue to ask him. I am
sensitive to the degree that if i like something
just for the sake of some good and great point
in it and I am not answered positively.... I
really begin to hate that thing. Well i don't
know why should i do it but still here i am to
do it. I like to chat, sing, speak, think, write
and argue in Arabic. I have no intention to
visit an Arabic speaking country as yet but
can it be helpful enough in learning a language to
personally visit the country where it is spoken?
Because we have been in this country of ours for
since our birth but still we haven't got command
and control over the national language spoken
here. Does it go to say that it doesn't matter
a lot to visit a country for the solitary purpose
of learning a language spoken there? I like the
h sound of Arabic and also I like it for not
having the clattering sounds of t,d etc. I
want to have good really good arabic language
friends. I can teach you English "only and only
if you think you need it". I should thank you
in advance if you think my love for Arabic and
the Arab is something valuable.
With best regards it is farhad (underscore)
alishah (at) yahoo (dot) com
my cell number is zerozeroninetwothreeonetwo
Wassalam-o-Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah!
( I shall be really anxiously waiting for
the language friend of my dreams.
How can i say in Arabic
"The lover and Admirer of Arabic as a Language"
Bubye thanks

John Cowan said...


Insofar as the troubles in Northern Ireland are nationalist (which in my opinion is not very far: they are far more colonialist than nationalist), there was originally a conflict of language between Scots-speakers (not Scottish Gaelic speakers) and Irish-speakers. Now both sides speak English, but have maintain their inherited enmities nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

The Maghreb's residents, generally speaking, are physiologically-colonised people in need of direction. The most imposing evidence for this, of course is their overindulgence in French and by extension French practices. The raising of this subject is always met with the same assurance; French is a means by which we can connect with the world and not become isolated as a country. Increasingly though, I find my peers treat speaking French as the 'end' in and of itself, rather than a means to and end. Truly, if we are committed to pursuing a policy of integration with the modern world, we should use the best tools available. If the Maghreb's foreign language was determined by the free-market, do you know what it would be? English.

Anonymous said...

It is clear that the Algerian linguistic scene is full of different varieties such as the Standard Arabic,Algerian Arabic,Berber and French.The standard Arabic was imposed by politicians without the acceptance of the speech community even though there were many competitors such as Berber which is considered as the mother tongue of many people so the question which should be asked is why don't we let the choice of language to the speech community? because the result of imposing the language was that there is no attitudes towards the Standards Arabic, there is bilingualism, there is language shift which may lead to language death and there is code switching.So, when all these results or we can say problems are raised we can simply understand that when we impose the language the speaker will definitely feel that he is forced and nothing comes with force.