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?