Friday, March 18, 2016

School in a language you don't speak

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 Geographics 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!


Anís del moro said...

This is by no means a recommendation, Lameen, but from my experience teaching Arabic as a foreign language, which is, admittedly, quite a different challenge, I would say a good start might be to forget about holding a conversation in Standard Arabic, while focusing instead on relevant reading and writing, as well as allowing Algerian Arabic more room in the classroom and an openly facilitating role.

Anonymous said...

Is the algerian situation comparable to that of German Swiss children learning German as a second language in school? I've no idea if general subjects are (or were) taught using standard German in German Switzerland.

More apropos, perhaps: in parts of the Muslim world where the vernacular is not an Arabic dialect, in religious schools which primarily teach the Koran but are liberal enough to teach general subjects, is Arabic the preferred language of instruction?

David Marjanović said...

Is the algerian situation comparable to that of German Swiss children learning German as a second language in school?

Would surprise me. Basically, everything written or broadcast in German is in Standard German, so children already know it pretty well when they enter school; and, Switzerland being rich, all children come into contact with a lot of such material.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Abu Ilyas: Sounds good, but I'd think writing and conversational abilities are at least somewhat correlated...

Anon: That's a very interesting comparison to look into - thanks! I know very little about the Swiss education system, but it seems to be rather more effective than that of any Arabic-speaking country. However, the difference between standard and spoken may not be quite as intense in Switzerland. As for non-Arabic-speaking regions, the language of instruction in religious schools is usually the local lingua franca until a fairly advanced stage, at least in the cases I know of.

David: Most Arabic broadcasting - notably including cartoons - and all Arabic writing is in Standard Arabic. But children tend to be exposed to a lot less written material; books are expensive relative to the average salary, and even when people can afford them they aren't necessarily as high a priority as in a place like Switzerland.

David Marjanović said...

That's what I thought.

Anonymus said...

Which language is used by TV and radio broadcasters? do they talk only in MSA? what about live broadcasts?

Y said...

David, that's why I hedged it with "were", meaning pre-broadcast days. My grandmother, at the beginning of the 20th century, certainly learned Standard German as a second language, but was fluent in both German and in Swiss, and did fine in school overall. Even today, though, I wonder if first graders in rural areas are comfortable enough in Standard German, or if their teachers feel compelled to avoid Swiss in the classroom from day one.

Anís del moro said...

Of course writing and conversational abilities are usually correlated, Lameen, but not that much, it seems, in terms of risk of being shunned or not... When it comes to diglossic situations, I mean, maybe we should reconsider this correlation and how it really operates.

Souhaib said...

The situation about broadcasting caroons in Standard Arabic is unfortunately getting changed! More and more cartoons are getting synchronised in Arab Dialects, especially those one of Walt Disney and co.

John Cowan said...

I think part of the problem may be that there isn't enough diversity in MSA: it is too stable, not enough of a diasystem. In Tamil, from what I understand, there is much more diversity: Cen Tamil (the language of religion) is kept extremely stable, but there are a whole constellation of H varieties with varying amounts of L in them that are used for various formal and semi-formal purposes. A Tamil political speech begins entirely in H, but what is said is purely formal greetings: typical listeners will not understand the exact content, but they know roughly what it is and (importantly) that they are being addressed respectfully. Then the actual content of the speech is in L, or in highly L-ized H, rising back to H for the formal close. Similarly, novels often have H narration but L dialogue, and newspapers are written either entirely in L or in moderately L-ized H, depending on the audience.

I have no idea what, if anything, can be done about this. The Tamil situation can doubtless be more flexible simply because H Tamil has no territory outside the Tamil-speaking area, but it is still highly valued: even Tamils who don't understand it think of it as "their language" in some sense. What is more, cultural patterns are written in plastique: they deform slowly under constant pressure, but hit them with a hammer and they detonate, with bad consequences for everybody. (John Campbell, I think)

Matthew said...

Why not vary the amount of fus7a and dialect as the years go on? If you teach students entirely in dialect, gradually increase the amount of fus7a used in the classroom, and eliminate the use of French at all levels of education, most students, provided that they take their education seriously, should be fluent in both fus7a and darija by the time they graduate from high school.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Anon: No, mostly MSA but quite a bit is broadcast in dialect.

Abu Ilyas: Maybe. It's quite possible that the average level of Fusha competence is higher in writing than in speech. But it's far from satisfactory even in writing, despite at least nominally being the language of instruction. That's what I'm trying to understand. If the average person could write it confidently and correctly, then I agree there wouldn't be much point in worrying about whether people could use it in spontaneous speech.

Souhaib: As I recall, Disney was dubbing in Egyptian for a while, but it recently changed its policy back to dubbing in Fusha, didn't it?

John: Interesting comparison. Arabic political speeches are quite often in L, and novels occasionally (more and more often?) use L dialogue, but newspapers practically never use L. L-ized H is never a target, as far as I know (though it's often the result of insufficient H skills); at most, there are cases of novelists attempting to construct ambiguous sentences that can be read as L or as marginally acceptable H, as Naguib Mahfouz apparently sometimes did. H-ized L, on the other hand, is a normal speech mode for educated speakers between themselves. It's still not a continuum, though: even the most H-ized L is still not acceptable in print, except in the sort of marginal contexts where L itself is.

Matthew: Interesting idea, but it poses some difficulties. Practically everyone teaches in dialect at least sometimes, but no one wants to admit to it...

David Marjanović said...

There's no continuum in Switzerland either. Nor in Austria, except in Vienna where there's a continuum between H and M, but not between M and locally moribund L.

Shah Jalal said...

The situation that you described in Algeria is common to all Arab countries and do not believe in the widely propagated but heavily erroneous claim that the north African/Maghribian dialects are much further from standard Arabic than the middle eastern ones. In fact the fact that north Africans speak at a faster pace and often merge the tri-lateral consonant base-roots of Arabic verbs makes it easier for them to speak fushaa. Fushaa is nobody's native language and is only acquired "artifically" through schooling or through the media.

As someone who has been to a couple of Arab countries and lived in Syria, I observed that the Syrians were far better in standard Arabic than the Egyptians with the Imams in the mosques giving khutbahs (sermons) which were in a quality of language which would only be dreamt of in in Egypt where the sermons are either in dialect or a mixture of dialect and fushaa. The reason apparently for the Syrians generally superior Arabic (this is not to negate the fact that an educated Syrian and Egyptian know Arabic equally well, but remember Egypt is a third world country with high illiteracy) is that the Baathist government would not allow a high school student to progress to the next year of schooling if he failed his Arabic even he passed all his other subjects.

The Arabization campaign in post-independence Algeria has borne fruit and the new generation of Algerians are much more comfortable with fushaa than a few decades earlier.

Can fushaa be spoken in normal daily life. Of course not one would be ridiculed as much as someone in the US or UK using the Shakespearian "art thou" or "why does thee...?".

Can Algerian darija be wiped out? Nope and nor should it as it is something which has existed for at least half a millenia if not earlier even during the time of Ibn Khaldun. It like other dialects has its own richness, pecularities, idiomatic wealth and proverbs which endear it to its speakers.

Standard Arabic itself is an evolution of earlier Semitic tongues and Algerian is a continuation of this development.

What is the "solution"?

I think the current status quo is the solution more or less (bar the phenomenon of certain Berber groups speaking to their children in Arabic to enhance their educational and thus socio-economic propsects). Knowing fushaa and darija is like knowing both Spanish and French. Knowing two languages is not a "problem" but an advantage. Imagine many of the southern French could still speak Occitan or Provencal rather than the Paris-imposed French they speak now?

As for retarding educational development, classical Arabic has to be studied as it's the general desire of Algerians that their country or youth know the tongue due to its connection with religion, sacred texts and the wider Arab world (not to deny in anyway the importance of Amazighi in Algeria's identity in what is essentially an Arabophone but racially Amazighi language).

If anything the real educational debate should be on the importance of English, which is the world's no.1 language and which dominates business, IT, engineering etc, as opposed to French.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The question is not whether we need to learn both Fusha and Darja - as far as I'm concerned, we do - but how best to do it. The current status quo is not an adequate solution. The overall educational performance of Algeria and other Arabic-speaking countries is terrible enough; to make matters worse, most Algerians' Fusha is still full of grammatical errors by the time they graduate high school, and even those who master the grammar usually still have an impoverished vocabulary. Quick, without an Arabic dictionary - what's the Fusha for "screwdriver", or "faucet (tap)", or "(spinning) top", or "nettle", or "loquat", or "stork"? I'm impressed if you know them all in Fusha, but surprised if there's any that you don't know in Darja (if you're from the north). Maybe Syria does better; if so, we need to study what they were doing right. But even Syria does pretty poorly by world standards; we should be aiming for a quality of education more comparable to Finland (where, by the way, every child is expected to learn at least three languages fluently, and usually does.)

Diglossia is an obstacle, no doubt about it - just like English's absurd spelling system, or Japanese's thousands of characters each with multiple readings. Rather than denying that there's any problem, or unrealistically trying to get rid of one or the other, we have to face up to the challenge and figure out more effective ways to deal with it.

David Marjanović said...

Speaking of diglossia and Finland, Finnish is very diglossic: the standard language is not actually spoken much, it lacks a lot of drastic contractions that all dialects (notably that of Helsinki) seem to have, and some of its phonology is due to spelling-pronunciations of spellings that are several hundred years old.

Imagine many of the southern French could still speak Occitan or Provencal rather than the Paris-imposed French they speak now?

Although French was very much imposed by Paris, that's not the whole story: French gained a lot of prestige by being associated with the Revolution and the Republic. In short, it became the language of liberté, égalité and eventually fraternité, while the other languages became associated with nothing but the bad old times.

Anonymous said...

Finland where, by the way, every child is expected to learn at least three languages fluently, and usually does
Closer to "expected to learn two out of three fluently" for what it's worth — the average L1 Finnish speaker's skills in Swedish are much exaggerrated. I recently found myself unable to follow a casual coffeebreak discussion. Of course the gap between colloquial Swedish, and written Swedish which much closer follows Swedish standards, is also relevant here.

But on the other hand, this could be countered with how also standard Finnish is for most people indeed a school-learned predominantly written register. (Though at least people like me who learnt to read at age 4 and have no strong traditional dialect as their spoken L1 are also often enough fully - what's the term again? biregisterial?)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks for the correction - I can see for myself how amazing Finns' English is, but for Swedish I find myself forced to take people's word for it :)

How different is standard Finnish vocabulary from non-standard? Are the differences concentrated mainly in particular semantic domains, or are they more far-reaching?

John Cowan said...

As far as I can tell, the differences between Standard Finnish and the dialects are almost entirely phonological, but of course a phonological difference can eventually become a lexical one. In English, varmint started as a dialectal version of vermin with merely phonological differences, but now is a separate lexical item in collocations like varmint rifle. In addition, separated varieties of Finnish lack more recent loanwords or have the "wrong" onesConsider Kven, the Finnish of Norway, sociolinguistically a separate language but fairly mutually intelligible, which uses tyskalainen 'German' < Norwegian tysk as against Standard Finnish saksalainen ultimately < Sachsen 'Saxony'.

Shah Jalal said...

It is good that you realize that both fusha and darija need to be taught. The issue then becomes one of modality, or to be more precises how to produce the most effective results. Darija is the natural language of the streets and every day life so doesn't need to be "taught" as such. Fusha does need to be taught and teaching standards, media/literature and other educational resources all need to improve. It's something quite achievable, but considering that Algeria like other Arab countries is not as wealthy as affluent European states may require more time.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

"Quite achievable" isn't good enough. Trusting in the inevitable forces of progress to care of this problem is a great way to make sure it never gets solved. Waiting for Algeria to get richer is exactly the reverse of what needs to happen - without a more effective educational system, Algeria's wealth will continue to fluctuate randomly with oil prices, and to be wasted on buying off dissent with make-work even when oil prices are high. If we want teaching standards and educational resources to improve, we - including you and me - need to work on that, not airily express our confidence that things will improve.

As a matter of fact, there is one extremely obvious way to improve on what we have now that hardly even involves any extra work: go back to teaching reading through phonics, as Algeria used to up to the 1990s, rather than the repeatedly discredited whole-word method being inflicted by the Ministry of Education on 1st graders today. Unfortunately, hardly anyone in Algeria even seems to be aware of this basic issue, much less of the tougher problems.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Actually, I shouldn't have assumed you had an Algerian background - the name "Shah Jalal" rather suggests Sylhet. If so, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on how diglossia plays out in education there.

Shah Jalal said...

The conventional perception is that "Bengali" and "Sylheti" are equivalent to fusha and darija in the Sylhet context, then you have an ostensibly more "well-informed" opinion that "hey, no, well really Sylheti is a separate language", linked to the notion that Sylhetis are a separate ethnic group.

As a relatively objective person I would have to say that the definition of language and dialect is something arbitrary and often political. Sylheti and Bengali are more or less mutually intelligible with a bit of effort e.g. all the verbs are the same, but Sylheti verb endings differ. Separate language? Yes it could be argued some "tongues" (to avoid use of the word language/dialect) differ in this way and are classified as different languages, whereas other "tongues" have far greater differences but are called "dialects".

However even for those who like to claim that Sylheti is a different language they cannot deny it has very little history of being used as a state language which is reflected by the vocabulary and paucity of literature. For a modern Sylheti in which educated discourse could take place there would have to be innovation, to be quite frank as a "proud Sylheti", I just find it a rural language so in that context dialectal.

Despite some of the silly propaganda as far as I know Sylhetis are ethnically Bengali and emanate from the same region of origin perhaps over a millenia ago (casual guess) but Sylhetis are definitely different culturally, mentally, behaviour wise to the rest of Bangladesh. If Sylhet was far bigger territorially and with a coast there would definitely be calls for independence, but the reality it is a small piece of landlocked land within an alreadly relatively small country.

Sylhet city is facing a demographic influx of non-Sylheti migrants, who have gone there for economic reasons. In the future Sylhet city will probably be majority "Bengali" (non-Sylheti) and the urban Sylheti middle class will probably continue to Bengalify their every day language even more than they do know increasing the gap between "pure" Sylheti spoken in the countryside and that of the small section of the urban population.

The biggest irony is that Sylhetis (by nature a conservative, cliqueish people) are amongst the staunchest supporters of the Awami League (current ruling party) in Bangladesh which focuses heavily on Bengali linguistic nationalism, promotion of Bengali and thus by default hostile to non-Bengali languages/dialects such as Sylheti. By supporting such a party Sylhetis and not lobbying for it to recognize and promote Sylheti, Sylhetis are perhaps accelerating the decline of their language/dialect.

Moubarik said...

An Algerian that would try to speak Literary-Arabic in their daily life is like a Frenchman or an Italian or a Romanian who would try today to speak in Latin in daily life! It's just not done. Any Latin-speaking Italian would be mocked today right in the heart of Rome, if he would try to make Latin a serious medium of communication with Italians whether on TV or in the bus.

The exception with Arabic is that it is recited in the mosques and used as a prayer language and preaching language. So this religious habit/rule produced an educational situation where Arabic is a medium of (modern) education when it shouldn't (Darja and Berber should instead - a normal system would teach new things to the kids using the language of the kids; a crooked system like ours in Morocco and Algeria teaches new things to kids using UKNOWN languages - Arabic and French- the result: failure), so this religious status of Arabic produced another situation with the newspapers and with TV and Radio where with international Arabic TV Channels like Aljazeera improvising pundits and journalists are kind of forced to speak in some dialect-flavored and error-laden mishmash of the Literary-Arabic language they learnt at school, the mosque and in newspapers; because the national Arabic Darija languages (of say Morocco or Algeria or Iraq) are not understood in other so-called Arabic-speaking countries (not well enough or not at all), and those Arabic languages are not developed well enough. A language isn't developed enough when it is not written enough.

The road forward is to read and write with the language(s) of the people. Arabic is just not really a language of the people, at least not in Berber north Africa. Arabic is a language of religious institutions and of political institution that derive their legitimacy from Islam. The elites of Morocco and Algeria teach French to their kids and send them to Europe and USA or to French-language colleges and universities.

Berber and Darija (the languages of the people) are paralysed / neutralized by the system (whose legitimacy is religion-based i.e. must appease Arabic and the Islamic clergy), and the use of Arabic paralyses everything from politics to education. Who benefits? French.

Anonymous said...

John C is right: the Arabic phenomenon of strong lexical differences between colloquial and written speech is not at all familiar to me (and though I don't have much to add directly, your discussion of the topic is still fascinating). Which is probably thanks to written Finnish having been standardized only quite recently: the phonological and occasional grammatical divergences result from late 19th and early 20th century language planners promoting archaisms as a means of compromising between dialect diversity, not from representing an actual fossilized historical standard. Things might be different if a strongly Western Finnish-centric standard had become widespread in use immediately from the 1500s on.

Earlier lexical diversity between the Finnish varieties of course existed as well, but the committee solution to this has been to take up any widespread variants into the standard as synonyms — often with preference for "more native" forms where applicable (e.g. the quite old loanwords purje 'sail' and laiva 'ship, boat' have by now almost entirely reclaimed their jobs from the newer and more transparently foreign seili and paatti).

Daniel N. said...

This is quite interesting. People have conversations in dialect all the time, but cartoons are dubbed into Standard Arabic? And how about movies? Do characters speak standard? If so, how realistic is that?

And what about popular songs? They cannot be in Standard Arabic, I guess.

This is a somewhat similar to the situation in my country (Croatia) with spoken dialects very different from the Standard Croatian. But there are some books and TV shows which mix dialects and Standard, and most people don't need to write much in their real life (and when they try writing in Standard, they often misspell).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Movies are usually in dialect, but they can be in standard too - subtitling is always in standard. Popular songs are usually in dialect, but there are nevertheless a fair number in standard - especially religious songs, these days, or ones based on poetry. I didn't realise Croatia was so diglossic - interesting to hear about it!

John Cowan said...

David M: I wasn't necessarily talking about a continuum between H and L, but a continuum within H itself. The written language of Switzerland and Austria is standard 21C German as actually spoken in (much of) Germany, whereas in Algeria it's the Lutherbibel, only more so.

petre said...

School in a language you don't speak?

Ever meet a Luxemburger? They grow up speaking Luxemburgish, go to primary school in German, and at 12/13 are suddenly plunged into exclusive French. Guess what? They're all trilingual, and a load of them speak frighteningly good English too.

ths said...


I'm both a Finnish speaker and Arabic speaker, having attended school in Finland and the Middle East. I'm not a linguist though! So unfortunately I can't explain the difference in the diglossia registers to you, but I've always compared the situation of Finnish and Arabic to friends.

I would bet that 100-200 years ago, the literacy in the formal Finnish register was nil, and everyone simply some Swedish in formal situations, or in their own dialect. The difference between formal Finnish and the local dialects is large, but not as large as Arabic. The education system, however, is starkly different, so your average Finn today is fully capable of writing and speaking in the formal register. How they managed to make this transition, I don't know, but the politics of language and television are surprisingly similar to Arabic countries. Except minus all the drama and debates. I suppose if you're successful, people don't find it shocking and worthy of debate anymore.

I would only add that unlike most Arab countries, the higher level education in Finland is entirely in Finnish. You can study any subject in your native language. In Arab countries, you absolutely must learn English or French, and in my experience, textbooks and curriculums are often taught in mediocre English. I have plenty of stories from Egyptian universities of engineering and biology professors trying to teach in English without being able to pronounce the words themselves.

However - regarding Arabic, have you ever heard of the story of Dr. Dannan, the Syrian educator?

He believed that you could speak fus7a naturally, without ever being taught grammar, and he used his own son as a test subject, and spoke to him only in fus7a. He then established kindergartens around the Middle East, after having proven that speaking to children in fus7a in kindergarten improves their grades in all subjects. You can hear him tell his story in this lecture:

What do you think of his system? Personally I'm a big fan and believe that Arabic countries can one day achieve the same fluency in fus7a as Finns have achieved in their own formal register.