Saturday, September 10, 2011

Wikileaks and Algeria's "language crisis"

Among the newly released Wikileaks US diplomatic cables is one from Algiers that presents a fairly uncritical review of Algerians' own worst stereotypes about the way they talk, with a notable Francophone slant coming from its sources: TRILINGUAL ILLITERATES: ALGERIA'S LANGUAGE CRISIS. The report paints an alarming picture: "Decades of government-imposed Arabization have produced an under-40 population that, in the words of frustrated Algerian business leaders, 'is not fluent in anything' and therefore handicapped in the job market and more vulnerable to extremist influence... The 20-40 age group now competing for jobs speaks a confusing mixture of French, Arabic and Berber that one business leader called 'useless,' as they cannot make themselves fully understood by anyone but themselves." But there are some serious problems with this.

Let's break it up into individual claims:

1. Arabisation of the educational system has led to a lack of fluency

It takes some ingenuity to reconstruct the reasoning behind this claim, since the cable doesn't give much of it. Its main basis seems to be statements like this: "Ameziane Ait Ahcene, Northrup Grumman's deputy director for Algeria, complained that he had to recruit in francophone Europe to find skilled accountants and engineers who were fluent in spoken and written French. Mohamed Hakem, marketing and communications director for the ETRHB Haddad group, shared the same sentiment, adding that the process of providing language training in French or English to new recruits was often prohibitively expensive and added too much time to the recruitment process." In other words, what they really mean is that Arabisation of the educational system has led to a lack of fluency in French - the (very real) problem of non-fluency in Standard Arabic is not really on the radar here, perhaps understandably for the business leaders given that most of Algeria's foreign trade is with non-Arabic-speaking countries. But correlation is not causation. The educated people over 40 whose passing they're lamenting certainly were more fluent in French; but they were also a minority within their own generation, and the state had a lot more money per capita to spend on educating them than it did in the 1980s or 1990s, the era of low oil prices and regular shortages. Keeping French as the language of education might have increased the number of those most fluent in French; but, given the difficulty of studying in a language totally unrelated to the one spoken in daily life, it would certainly have decreased the number of educated people (as well as alienating them even more from their own heritage.) The flip side of this question is: why, almost 50 years after independence and 20 years after Arabisation of secondary school, do so many Algerian jobs that don't involve any contact with foreign countries at all - notably in the civil service - still demand fluency in French? Why do many Algerian government websites, as I've noted previously, not even provide Arabic versions?

However, our anonymous embassy official makes a telling mistake about the extent of Arabisation. He claims that "University subjects are also taught in Arabic -- without exception since former Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem refused to allow scientific and technical subjects to revert to French-language instruction", and that "The Algerian school system now produces graduates who must first take the time and money after university to re-learn subjects like engineering, science and commerce in French in order to compete for jobs in Algeria and abroad." But any Algerian university student can tell you that scientific and technical subjects are still consistently taught in French, except for a few quasi-experimental English-language courses. In fact, a quick Google search reveals a 2009 paper, Pratiques langagières d'étudiants en médecine de la Faculté d'Alger, whose abstract complains about this: "In Algeria, although school leavers accede to higher education with all their secondary education in Arabic, they pursue medical studies in French. This language, ill mastered by the majority in spite the fact that they were strictly short listed when they enrolled, is felt as a setback in their studies."

2. Lack of fluency has handicapped youth in the job market: "several Algerian business representatives lamented what they called the "lost generation" of Algerian workers, who are left out largely because of their inability to function at a professional level in any single language." "You are trilingual illiterates."

No argument there. White-collar jobs almost by definition require fluency in written, prescriptively defined standard languages, and most Algerian youth aren't fluent enough in any such language; it's a scandal, and the educational system needs to be fixed, and the kids need to study harder. However, these kids do have at least one linguistic asset that tends to be ignored. The primary everyday language of Algeria - at home, on the street, in the shops - is Algerian Arabic (Darja), Arabic in origin but so far removed from Standard Arabic that Middle Easterners can barely understand it. No one would dream of listing fluency in Darja as an asset; but just try living in Algeria without it! And if you think it's easy, try learning it from scratch.

3. Lack of fluency has made youth vulnerable to extremism.

Hmm... hard to figure out the reasoning here (I addressed a more extreme similar claim a while ago.) It might simply mean that lack of fluency leads to poor economic prospects, which lead to extremism - though whether poverty in fact leads to extremism is arguable. It might be code for "Now that the kids speak Arabic better than French, they're more influenced by Middle Eastern preachers instead of by French movies" - which is sort of true, but is still a gross oversimplification (part of the causality even runs the other way - the availability of satellite channels since the early 1990s seems to have had a positive impact on kids' abilities in both languages.) Or perhaps the idea is that fluency in a literary language gives a person the confidence to argue against ideas being advanced by authority figures? There might be something in that, but I'd say Algerians are fairly argumentative without it...

4. We now face "an entire generation fluent only in a linguistic collage known as 'Algerian'", which is "useless." "Diplomats coming to Algeria after serving elsewhere in the region are amazed that Algerians rarely finish a sentence in the same language they started it in."

The idea that Darja is "useless" I already addressed above: how can the primary language you need for everyday life almost everywhere in the country be dismissed as "useless"! Darja itself, in general, is not a particularly mixed language: it's a coherent Arabic dialect with an unusual number of words taken from French, but with its grammar essentially unchanged from the dialect of Arabic already spoken in Algeria before the French arrived. If it's a "linguistic collage", what are we to say of English, more than half of whose vocabulary derives from French or Latin?

However, there are some parts of Algeria - mainly Algiers and its surroundings - where many people commonly practise code-switching and code-mixing, ie the incorporation of whole phrases and sentences from French into a conversation whose main language is Darja. I personally find this practice irritating, and inconsiderate when directed towards strangers: you can usually take it for granted that another Algerian will be fluent in Darja, but many Algerians speak French haltingly or not at all, and peppering your speech with French phrases tends to make them feel unwelcome. But it's certainly not "useless" from an educational perspective; to the contrary, it causes Algerois who would otherwise have little occasion to use French to maintain a fairly high level of conversational fluency in it, and keeps them in practice. Nor is it "useless" from a practical perspective: being able to comprehend this mix is a fairly essential skill in Algiers, as important in commercial contexts as in social encounters. And, in my experience, the most persistent language-mixers aren't the uneducated at all: they're the ones who speak the best French, and either find it easier to express some thoughts in French or want to make very sure you don't take them for country bumpkins. It's also worth emphasising that code-switching isn't some kind of uniquely Algerian pathology: it happens in almost every genuinely bilingual society, all over the world.

5. English is the way out of this mess: "We hear at all levels that this problem has led to a tremendous appetite for English -- a neutral, global language unburdened by Algerian history -- as the best way forward... As the director of cooperation at the Ministry of Higher Education recently told us, Algeria 'needs a Marshall Plan for the English language.'"

Algeria emphatically does need more graduates fluent in English (and I'm glad to say this is slowly happening - check out E-DZ); given the current dominance of English in global research and business, this is a far higher priority than increasing fluency in French. But that's yet another challenge for the educational system, not a solution for its ills. Algeria has far more fluent French- and Arabic-speakers to draw on than English speakers, yet it still ends up with high school graduates who can't write a letter in any language without numerous mistakes. If English teaching is expanded without otherwise reforming the educational system, then all that Algeria will get is more "trilingual illiterates".

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Why German is strange

Following up on comments to the previous post, some readers may be interested in the following list of the top ten rarest typological features of Northwestern European languages (on WALS), ordered from most to least unusual:
  1. Polar Questions - coded through word order (Did he? He did.); very unusual outside Europe.
  2. Uvular Consonants - continuants only (French/German/Dutch "r"); usually languages with uvulars have a uvular stop.
  3. The Perfect - coded with a word meaning "have" (I have done it); unparalleled outside Europe.
  4. Coding of Evidentiality - using a modal verb; unusual outside Europe
  5. Demonstratives - no distance contrast (German); rare worldwide.
  6. Negative Indefinite Pronouns - used without a predicate negator (I saw nothing, instead of I ain't seen nothing); very rare outside Europe.
  7. Front Rounded Vowels - high and mid (ü, ö); unusual outside northern Eurasia
  8. Relativization on Subjects - using a relative pronoun; most of the world's language use non-pronominal strategies.
  9. Weight-Sensitive Stress - Right-oriented, antepenultimate involved; unusual.
  10. Order of Object and Verb - alternates depending on clause type (German, Dutch); most languages keep this fixed irrespective of clause type.
This is from: Cysouw, Michael. 2011. Quantitative explorations of the world-wide distribution of rare characteristics, or: the exceptionality of northwestern European languages. In: Horst Simon & Heike Wiese (Eds.) Expecting the Unexpected. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. 411-431.

For a list of some linguistic features common in Europe more generally but rare outside it, see Haspelmath 2001 (summarised here.)

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Forthcoming talk: the history of Kwarandzyey viewed in areal context

Some readers may be interested in a talk I'll be giving at the end of this month in Paris, at LACITO on 30 September in a colloquium called Journée d'étude : Aires linguistiques. The title is "Du Sahel au Maghreb : essai d'une histoire linguistique du korandjé, langue songhay loin de son aire d'origine". (Yes, I'm going to try to deliver it in French - a foolhardy decision, given that I've only ever studied two years of it, but there you are.)

Basically, Kwarandzyey - the language of Tabelbala in SW Algeria - is a Songhay language, brought originally from at least a thousand kilometres to the south in the Niger valley. The Songhay family typologically fits reasonably well into West Africa - for Güldemann, it is a peripheral member of the Macro-Sudanic area - and shares some features widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa and rare north of the Sahara (such as Noun-Numeral order). In particular, Songhay shows strikingly close structural similarities to the Mande languages (eg S-Aux-O-V order); these similarities for the most part appear likely to reflect early Mande influence on Songhay, rather than a common genetic origin. The languages of Northwestern Africa - Arabic and Berber varieties alike - share a number of characteristics which contrast sharply with Songhay and with the West African languages around it: some of these reflect common inheritance (eg a two-gender system), others reflect convergence, having been absent from both proto-Berber and early Arabic (eg a vowel system consisting of a i u, plus neutral ə restricted to closed syllables.) Over the past millennium, Kwarandzyey has changed a lot; most of these changes (lexical, grammatical, and phonological) have brought it closer to the Arabic and Berber varieties spoken around its current location. But the changes do not derive from a single language; the lexicon lets us discern influence at least three different branches of Berber (Western, Atlas, and Zenati) and two rather different Arabic dialects (Western Maghrebi and Hassaniya). One way to view this phenomenon is to say that Kwarandzyey, having been isolated from the Macro-Sudanic area to which its ancestor belonged, has been getting integrated into a Northwest African linguistic (and indeed cultural) area. But is this a helpful way of viewing things, or does it misleadingly present an essentially local phenomenon as a product of a wider region? We'll have to see...