When I was six years old, I started first grade in a small Algerian city, right after having done kindergarten in the US and forgotten most of the Arabic I had previously known. It was by far the most painful institutional transition I've ever had to make. At home, I was devouring National Geographic
s and starting to tackle The Lord of the Rings
- but at school, I'm pretty sure the teacher thought I was retarded. In the classroom, I spent a lot of that year completely tuned out, playing with pens or bits of bread and waiting for the boredom to stop. By the end of second grade I had formed some idea of what the teacher was talking about - her vivid descriptions of hellfire and torture remain particularly memorable - though I still had no idea that there might be actual principles determining whether my writing was judged as correct or incorrect. At that point, however, my parents decided that enough was enough, and we started homeschooling, mostly in the language I spoke best - English. It felt like being released from jail.
My experience of starting school in a language I didn't know is not exactly typical, of course. I was a lot luckier than most. Sure, I was failing at school, but I could already read English just fine, so even at six I could see that that school wasn't the only game around. For most children who start school in a language they don't know, the choices are starker: master the new language, or give up on education altogether.
Plenty of Algerian children have faced precisely that situation, as I saw doing fieldwork in the southwest - and not just during the colonial era. It's what has led the people of Tabelbala and Igli to start speaking Arabic to their children rather than Korandje or Berber. For that matter, so have plenty of American children - Native Americans during the era of forced boarding schools come to mind. It's a problem faced by linguistic minorities all over the world, and, unless they manage to force the schools to make concessions, it often ends in language extinction, as the next generation of parents try to spare their children the trauma they themselves had experienced.
The big difference, though, is that in America, most children come to school speaking something pretty close to the language of their textbooks. In Algeria, and any other Arabic-speaking country, it's a little more complicated. Most children come to school speaking Algerian Arabic, and most teachers use Algerian Arabic with them to some extent, even though they're not supposed to. But the Standard Arabic that they're learning to read is as different from what they speak as the language of Chaucer from 21st-century American English. Even the most divergent Appalachian or inner city dialects are closer to standard English than the home language of the most highly educated middle-class Algerians is to standard Arabic.
Don't get me wrong: it's much easier than starting school in a completely different language. Even before independence, when TV was an unaffordable luxury and 90% of Algerians were illiterate in any language, a sufficiently motivated Arabic speaker could learn to read well enough to do it for fun, without ever passing through anything the colonial government considered to count as a school; that's what my own father did. And now that most children are watching cartoons in Standard Arabic from a young age, the gap is narrower than it used to be. Nevertheless, the difficulties it poses seem conspicuous to anyone lucky enough to have studied in their own language: how many children would be willing to read Chaucer in the original for fun?
You might suppose that the solution is obvious: speak "properly" to your kids! Or, alternatively: Make the spoken dialect into a written language! However, both ideas are almost equally taboo. The idea of teaching dialect at school seems as ridiculous to the average Algerian as it does to the average English speaker: we send them to school to learn stuff they don't know, not the language of the street! But, whereas many English speakers actively try to speak "correct" English, with their children and with everyone else, an Algerian who tried to speak Standard Arabic to everyone would be shunned; you can't seriously expect to be part of Algerian society without speaking the dialect. Of course, English speakers don't react well either when someone tries to speak too formally in an informal situation. But in most English-speaking social circles, it is possible - by the judicious avoidance of words like "judicious" and "avoidance" - to speak English in a way that is simultaneously informal enough to be friendly and prescriptively correct enough to be written down in an essay. That is not possible in Arabic, irrespective of social class: you have to choose one or the other. For me, that lack of a middle ground is what's really distinctive about the situation. For the foreseeable future, this means that most Algerian children will continue to be expected to learn both Algerian Arabic and Standard Arabic (not to mention French and English and sometimes Tamazight too), while having practically no opportunities to hold a conversation in Standard Arabic.
What's the best way to achieve that goal, and what evidence bears on that question? I've been reading around that a bit lately, but if you have any recommendations, please feel free to post them below!