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".


Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Incidentally, to go a little further back in the history of Algeria's language crisis - I just found a quote from a pro-colon (and pro-apartheid) American author with some bearing on why Algeria reached independence with a literacy rate of barely 10%, thankfully quickly rectified after independence:

"If the [French] Government, in the name of equal treatment, had to provide free, compulsory schooling for all Arab children, the financial burden would be out of all proportion with Algeria's ability to produce.* Even the present [then-recent] effort is too great to be economically sound. In 1955, with 300,000 Moslem pupils - 13 per cent of the Moslem children of school age - and 125,000 Europeans in Algeria's free public primary schools..." Algeria in turmoil

David Marjanović said...

Money is often involved in vicious circles.

Cemmust said...

Great analysis.

Algeria is certainly the champion of North Africa when it comes to code-switching and mixing between a European language and the indigenous language. I listen to Algeria's Berber radio (Radio tiss 2 - It should be called Aradyu wiss 2 - "la radio" is feminine in French but feels masculine in Berber) and the code-switching by radio presenters and guests on that radio station between Berber and French exceeds irritation and borders on disgust.

In Morocco, this disease (of superfluous code-switching - not the necessary one) is much less common in society, but is actively glorified and promoted on Moroccan TV and in Moroccan Darija movies and TV drama's. In the Moroccan Riff region, there is the Berber-Spanish code-mixing especially in and around Spanish-occupied Melilla. Also, there is the code-mixing between Berber and Standard Arabic. Arabic media and the state's pro-Arabic policies certainly are the main causes.

Like you said many use code-switching or mixing (whether on TV or in real life) as a way of exonerating themselves from being a local bumpkin. Only in Morocco and Algeria, most of this is aimed at fellow citizens, not at tourists or foreigners! After all, actual French people have no time for watching the pathetic TV channels of Morocco and Algeria, including their carefully tailored French-language news/propaganda bulletins!

Aqemmud' said...

Indeed the ubiquitous code-switching in towns of many places around Algiers is worrisome as a loss of language skills : the youngsters are unable to properly talk in either Darija (a kind of "mongrel" slang emerged in Algiers' suburbs), Tamazight (what a shame when I listen to the pathetic joke of Taqvaylit in Tizi-Ouzou), and Standard Arabic nearly reduced to nothing but Al-Jazeera's language.

How can people therefore develop complex linguistic corpus. I think school must be taught in native tongues and not in alien ones (naturalization of Fush'a words in Darija is not impossible and Tamazight would get a true future for the intellectual world).

Unknown said...

Language crises is a symptom that colonialisation has not gone but a deep reinforcement of it, even extending to non-colonised countries physically. There is a multidimentional umbilical cord that maintains an imposed links the colonised countries to their colonisers:

the majority of these countries are poor and cannot afford the transfer of know-how into their native languages and remain deeply dependent, and those who can afford have adopted the pro-colonial slave mentality that the language of the coloniser is better at in communicating at all know-how knowledges and under the pretext that the language of the coloniser is an international or business language and hence it allows the colonised people access into the international market, in other words myths (mind-control) to keep these countries under colonialism and to assimilate into the ways and mentality of the coloniser but at inferior position that keeps them in crises and deletes in it their identity.

Some, in an attempt to maintain their identity, and who can afford the transfer but still have their umbilical card linked to the coloniser try to do at lower education with their native languages (half-heartedly) and at highr education with the language of the coloniser especially technical ones, and in it creating an inferiority-superiority complex that reinforeses the cycle of colonialism and eventual loss of native languages and indentity as they become merely a ghettos in a global colonial empire.

Acknowledging that colonialism is as active as it ever was is the first step out of this crisis and out of the destructive colonial languages.

Carmita said...

Another informational, enjoyable post to read.......thanks for putting it together.

Översätt said...

The history of Algeria is facinating. However there are part of the history that shouldn't make the French proud.

Anonymous said...

اسمحلي عل التعليق المتوخر كثر من عام من بعد. واش رايك في قدرة الدارجة باش تولي هي اللغة اللولة و الرسمية قبل الفصحى ؟ كيما على بالك الدارجة ماهيش وحدة. كل جهة عندها دارجتها اللي كلماتها و تعابيرها تتميز عل الجهات لخرين. ويناهي اللي نخيروها ؟ الا كان لازم نركبو لغة اصطناعية من دارجة كل جهة و نطعموها بكلمات و مفردات من الفصحى امالا واشي هو الاختلاف مع العربية الفصحى ؟ حاب نسقسيك ثاني عل العامل الديني اللي ما هدرتش عليه في المقال متاعك. السبة اللي مخليتنا نقراو فالمدرسة لغة قديمة عل اللاتينية ما بقى حتى واحد فالدنيا يهدرها في دارو هي أنها لغة مقدسة. كيفاش في رايك يمكنا نهدرو لغتنا كيما التراك ولا الماليزيين و نوفقو بينها و بين الدين ؟ كيفاش ثاني نحافظو على تراث كبير و هايل بالعربية الفصحى و ما نودروش التواصل بينا و بين شعوب البلدان لخرى اللي تهدر بلهجات عربية ؟ يرحم والديك

Anonymous said...

واقيلا زربت كثر من اللازم و سقسيت قبل ما نكمل نقرا مقالات اخرين. ما لقيتش كيفاش نمحي المشاركة متاعي الا تقدر من فضلك انت تمحيها. راني مندهش من القيمة الاكاديمية العالية للأبحاث اللي راك تخدم فيها بالخصوص كي نقابلها مع تصريحات السياسيين اللي هما مكلفين بالتربية و التعليم و الثقافة. ما نهدرش عل الصحافة. يا هل ترى عندك اتصالات بالجامعيين في البلدان المغاربية ؟ وصوتك راه مسموع عند الاحزاب السياسية و النواب ؟ حمالديك و اسمحلي مرة اخرى

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

شكرا على التعليق! قضية استعمال الدارجة واعرة - كيما قلت ما لازمش نقطعوا الرابطة اللي تربطنا بتراثنا وجدودنا، وفي نفس الوقت مليح لوكان نعطوا لولادنا الفرصة باش يقراو ويكتبوا باللغة اللي موالفين يهدروها كل يوم. بصح راك صبت واش كتبت في الموضوع إمالا ما نطولش في الرد.

أما الاتصالات بالأحزاب السياسية والو. عندي شوية اتصالات مع الجامعيين و مادابيا نزيد.

Anonymous said...

شكرًا ليك على الرد. كيما قلت الدارجة قضية واعرة و المشكلة اللغوية في الدول المغاربية بصفة أعم. السياسيين في دزاير ما نهدرش عليهم و الجامعيين ما عنديش فكرة واضحة عليهم على خاطر راني عايش في فرنسا عندي مدة. ربما فالمروك. الحالة التونسية بالصح تختلف. خلط اللغات فيها يظهر قل من البلدان لخرين وزيد التفتح و الثقافة العالية تخلي التوانسة يتقبلو نقاش مفتوح في مواضيع كيما هذي. راني علا بالي بلي الجيل السياسي الجديد راه مهتم بالمسألة اللغوية وراك انت هدرت على مقال للمرزوقي في هذا الموضوع. ما عنديش شك بلي في تونس كفاءات بالصح يظهرلي بلي راك تقدر تفيد الحراك الثوري في تونس فايدة كبيرة لو كان تتصل بالجمعيات المهتمة بالموضوع و حتى بالمرزوقي نفسه لأنه انسان شغوف بالقراءة و أنا متأكد بلي تحليلك الدقيق و معرفتك الواسعة بالمسألة اللغوية راح تلقى اهتمام كبير عندهم و بالاك تأثر تأثير إيجابي على السياسة التعليمية و الثقافية في تونس في المستقبل. ربي يوفقك

Unknown said...

Hi, nothing to do with the post but I was wondering if you could tell me if you knew of any books or on-line text were I might learn spoken Algerian. My children and husband are Algerian and we are planning on moving there at some point and I would like to start teaching myself and my children . Thank you