Language conflict flares in Algeria

A plan to use the Algerian vernacular as a language of instruction in the early years in primary schools has reignited language conflict in Algeria amid fears that it will weaken the position of Modern Standard Arabic. Language conflicts of various kinds are traceable back to French colonisation in 1830.

The North African country’s language and cultural identities are marked by the use of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), Algerian Arabic, French and Berber languages of its indigenous population, the Amazigh. The language of government and religious culture is MSA. The language of commerce, media and much academic research is French. In everyday life, people speak colloquial Algerian Arabic or Berber.

The controversial plan caused uproar among the country’s defenders of a modern standard Arabization campaign launched after independence in the 1960s. Feeling under pressure, especially from Islamist groups, the national education minister, Nouria Benghabrit dismissed the plan as “rumours” two days after it was unveiled by a top education official.

The plan, if implemented, may slow down the Arabization process, a move that some argue would help Algeria deal with its own multilingual reality.

It would put the country on a new trajectory that may appease its  increasingly vociferous Berber [Amazigh] majority areas, the bastion of opposition to Arabization. 

Modern Standard Arabic, the sole official language in Algeria, will no longer be the assumed language of instruction in primary schools. Instead it will be “gradually” introduced in primary schools; from the beginning of schooling the Algerian Arabic dialect with its local variations will be used as a language of instruction, local media reported on 27th July quoting the Inspector-General of Algeria’s national education ministry Nejadi Miskim.

In Algeria, as in many Arab countries, spoken Arabic differs substantially from the written MSA.

The daily El Khabar quoted Miskim as saying the aim of the gradual introduction of Arabic is “to not shock pupils at this early stage of education”.التدريس-بالعامية-في-الابتدائي-بداية-من-السنة-المقبلة/#sthash.bbC9NFnp.9pZnzG3B.dpbs

Many students are only fluent in the dialect they speak at home, Miskim said. The mother tongue and MSA should complement each other; for this reason primary school children will have to learn “the Algerian languages”, he added.

The plan is part of a slew of recommendations made by the country’s National Commission for Reform of the Education System, the official said at a news conference.

Islamist parties and organizations have been among the first to condemn the plan. Since the language of Islam is classical Arabic (much closer to standard Arabic than any colloquial form) the drive for Arabization with MSA is a most potent symbol of Islamic culture.

In a statement posted on Facebook, parliamentarian groups of mostly Islamist lawmakers slammed the decision “to replace Arabic with spoken dialects as a dangerous precedent in the history of the Algerian education system”.

The decision is “a violation of the constitution and laws of the Republic” and a threat to “national unity and social harmony”, they said.

They called for the resignation of Benghabrit, for “overstepping the line by targeting the pillars of society”.

The lawmakers also condemned what they called “politicization of the education system and the return to language conflict”, questioning “the real intentions” of those who took this decision independently from Parliament.

Further condemnation came from the Algerian Islamic Scholars Association, which besides sharing the lawmakers’ statement on its Facebook page, urged Algerians to voice their opposition to the decision to their MPs.

The plan has plunged the education minister back into controversy.

Benghabrit has been in the crossfire since she took over the education portfolio in May last year. Slurs abound about her ethnic background with some claiming, that though she is a Muslim, she is of Jewish origin. Among the staunch critics of her appointment are Islamist parties. The Algerian Islamic Ennahda Movement censured the prime minister for assigning “a ministry linked to national identity to a figure whose loyalty is questionable”, as the party put it in response to her appointment.

Since then, her critics have campaigned on Facebook for her dismissal.

 One of the Facebook pages calling for the dismissal of Algerian education minister Nouria Benghabrit.

One of the Facebook pages calling for the dismissal of Algerian education minister Nouria Benghabrit.

Alongside the promotion of colloquial Algerian Arabic came another significant measure, the education official, Nejadi Miskim, announced that the Berber language, Tamazight, will be taught in 20 regions in the country.

In 2001, the government amended the constitution to make Tamazight a national but not an official language.

The Berber-speaking population of Algeria, estimated to be over one quarter of the 38 million Algerians, is concentrated in the north-eastern mountainous areas of Kabylia and in Aures. The two smaller Berber communities are the Mozabites of Ghardaia and the Tuareg nomads in the Sahara.

Berber speakers are not only geographically dispersed, they also have subcultures with various spoken dialects and languages.

Since the French colonial era, the politics of language has been one of the most divisive issues in Algeria, linguistics professor Mohamed Benrabah argued in his book “Language Conflict in Algeria”.

In colonial times the imposition of French was seen as authoritarian. Now MSA is viewed in a similar light by Berber speakers.

Language conflict in Algeria, Benrabah argued, has always been a proxy for political conflict caused by a “top-down”, authoritarian language policy that ignores popular sentiment. This policy stands in contrast to a much-needed one developed through a democratic, “bottom-up”, inclusive process that takes into account the country’s diverse ethnic and linguistic groups, according to Benrabah.

The Kabyle region, where nearly half of Algeria’s Berber speakers live, has been the hub of Amazigh political and cultural activism, protests and unrest since the 1960s—all triggered by demands for greater recognition of Berber language and culture—North Africa’s dominant culture until the introduction of Islam and Arabic from the mid-seventh century onwards.

Berber activists have generally supported the idea of Algeria as a bilingual state, with equal recognition given to their language and to Algerian Arabic, rather than MSA, as the language of the majority of the population.

Berber activism is highly visible on social media. A multitude of Facebook pages illustrate Berbers’ cultural assertiveness and distinctive ethnic identity.

The Berber Facebook page: "Correct history; Algeria is not an Arab country".