Is taught French in school in Algeria

School dispute in Algeria

Standard Arabic, Darja or French? Opinions differ on the correct language of instruction

by Akram Belkaïd

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When the Abitur exams begin in Algeria, the whole country is excited: “It's a special time every year,” says Abdelmoumen B., a former university official who has switched to the private sector and does not want to read his full name in the newspaper. “We used to be so proud of the perfect organization of the exams. But today it is like everywhere else: sloppy and corrupt. ”What is meant is the leak in the examination papers, which caused quite a stir this year - in an already tense situation. For months, the whole country has been wondering what is the health of President Bouteflika and whether he is even able to govern. The leak is not only further evidence of the miserable state of the school system, but also of the state.

The rumor had been around for a long time when the Ministry of Education admitted at the beginning of June that some tasks and some of the solutions were circulating on social networks. The police were called in and had barely started their investigation when they presented around 30 suspects. With reference to the “right to equal opportunities guaranteed by the constitution”, Education Minister Nouria Benghabrit-Remaoun decided that some exams would be repeated two weeks later.

It was also decided to block social networks during the repeat exams - a measure that is as outrageous as it is pointless for many. "There is no point turning off the Internet, the tasks trickle through anyway," says Anissa F., a young teacher from Tizi Ouzou, who is visibly amused about how thousands of users learned to circumvent censorship on the Internet during the blockade .

The core of the dispute, however, lies elsewhere. And there are two irreconcilable camps facing each other: while one is loudly calling for the education minister to resign - after all, in a comparable case in 1992 one of her predecessors also had to take his hat off - the others describe this as an Islamic-conservative conspiracy against Benghabrit-Remaoun. Much of the French-speaking press, the Algerian left and many well-known personalities who oppose the Islamist current see an intrigue at work, the aim of which is to undermine the planned reforms.

In fact, the 64-year-old sociologist Benghabrit-Remaoun, who studied in Paris and does not belong to any political camp, has been under constant fire since her appointment in May 2014. She had not yet presented her reform program when the minister, who does not wear a headscarf and whose pronunciation in standard Arabic sometimes sounds a bit clumsy, was already heavily criticized, especially by members of the approved religious parties, but also from the ranks of the “Presidential Alliance “Such as the Front de liberation nationale (FLN, National Liberation Front) and the Rassemblement national démocratique (RND, National Democratic Collection). When it was alleged that Benghabrit-Remaoun, who was allegedly too Frankophile, was Jewish, the minister was even exposed to anti-Semitic attacks - until Algeria's independent press pointed out that she was the great niece of Si Kaddour Benghrabit, the founder of the Great Mosque in Paris.

In July 2015, the "iron lady", as she is called by some media, aroused people's spirits when she announced at a conference that one of the planned measures to promote so-called school failure was the introduction of Algerian Arabic (darja) as the language of instruction. The Conservatives were beside themselves. Classical standard Arabic (fusha) has officially been Algeria's only language of instruction for 40 years; only individual courses are also held in French (which is taught from the 3rd grade), in the Berber language Tamazight and in English.

However, the Arabization of the Algerian education system under President Houari Boumedienne (1965 to 1978) is not without controversy: “From the first grade on, children are taught in a language they cannot understand because they cannot hear it at home or on the street. This lays the foundations for failure later, ”explains one teacher. Although it is not officially allowed, he speaks to his first and second graders darja, “at the risk of being sanctioned by the administration”.

In fact, the extent of school failure is considerable, as the statistics from the Ministry of Education show: 84 percent of primary school students make it to college (lower secondary level), but of those only 72 percent manage to switch to the lycée (upper secondary level). And only 52 percent of high school students do the Abitur.1 In July 2016, the success rate was only 50 percent. With the help of the planned reforms, the ministry hopes that this quota will increase to 70 percent in a first step.

The very thought of questioning Standard Arabic as the only language of instruction outrags a large part of the political class. Finally, he shakes one of the pillars of the regime: since Algeria's independence from France (1962), it has been the task of the education system to revive the Arab and Muslim heritage. This should be achieved primarily through the use of classical or literary standard Arabic. The architects of the Restoration despised Algerian darja, which contains many French words and terms from the Berber language.

In their eyes darja, which is difficult to understand in Mashrik, the Arab East, and the Gulf, is the language of the colonial power, which they used to isolate the country from the rest of the Arab world. The Islamists and the heirs of the national independence movement therefore rarely agree on this one point: darja should not be allowed as a school language.

For the same reasons, an attempt to modernize schools 40 years ago failed. At that time the education minister was the former resistance fighter and writer Mostefa Lacheraf (1917–2007). However, the former FLN leader was unable to convince the Unity Party of his bilingual school model (then French and Arabic). In his memoirs, Lacheraf describes how the nationalists torpedoed his reform project and even threatened him with physical violence. They accused him of wanting to sell the Algerian school system to the former colonial power.2

It was a moderate reform, says a former senior official from the Ministry of Education. The FLN went on to claim that it was proof of the existence of a "French party", the infamous "Hizb França". When Colonel Chadli Bendjedid took power after Boumedienne's death in 1978, he appointed an Arabist as Minister of Education whose first words were: "Bilingualism is over!"

The language of instruction, the sacrosanct status of classical Arabic and the role of French (see article on page 19) are not the only disputed points on the subject of schools: even a cursory glance at the local press shows the extent of the criticism of the “ailing institution ". The Ministry of Education opposes this and points to positive developments and new approaches: literacy in Algeria today is 78 percent (at the time of independence it was 13 percent). The declared aim is to educate all children by the end of the college. And in view of the proportion of 65 percent female high school graduates and 1.5 million enrolled female students (twice as many as men), nobody has been able to complain about girls' poor education for a long time.

The high proportion of women graduating from high school is explained by a slight demographic imbalance - women under 20 are in the majority - and by the fact that education is still the best way to emancipate. But when girls fail at school, the trap snaps shut and they are forced into a mostly family-arranged marriage, far too young. Whereas boys, even after dropping out of school, can still survive with small businesses in the informal sector.

Frequent points of criticism are also the poor infrastructure and overcrowded classes. "There are 55 students in my senior class," says a math teacher from the coastal town of Annaba. "It is very difficult to ensure good preparation for the Abitur."

54 years after independence, Algeria has made progress in education: the number of grammar schools rose from 39 in 1962 to 1200 in 2016. The primary schools and colleges show a comparable increase, the number of which has risen since 1962 from 379 and 7,855 to 3,500 and 15,000 respectively.

Algeria invests 14 percent of its state budget in the school system. Another 7 percent flow into the universities - but that is by far not enough to cover the costs of the increasing number of students. Because Algerian society is relatively young: More than half of the 40.4 million inhabitants (as of January 2016) are younger than 15 years. 4 million children are currently in primary school, which is a record. According to a government working paper available to the author, Algeria would have to increase its school intake capacity by 50 percent by 2025 just to maintain the current teaching conditions.

The authorities in charge do not seem to be concerned: They are up to the challenge, they say, and repeat like a mantra that the school year finally started in the autumn of 1962 after almost all of the French teaching staff had left the country. “It's not a question of quantity,” says an ex-minister who otherwise has many complaints about the current government. “It's a question of money. And Algeria is still richer than its neighbors despite the low oil price. The difficulties lie elsewhere: It is primarily about the learning content and the qualifications of the teachers. "

There have been three major educational reforms since independence. The first from 1976 pushed through the Arabization and installed the elementary school system of the "écoles fondamentales", which were soon referred to only as "école fawda-mental" - fawda means "anarchy". The second reform, in 1999, was a minor revision of the curriculum, and the last, in 2006, reduced primary schooling from six to five years.

The “second generation of pedagogical reforms”, which are to apply from this school year on, aims to improve teacher training, a modified grading system and an expanded range of foreign languages. In the future, children should also be able to learn Turkish, Chinese or Korean at school, for example.

Many of the school problems mentioned are known from dozens of other countries. Algeria wants to modernize teaching and is lucky that there is no shortage of teachers. When 28,000 additional teachers were to be recruited last June to support the 400,000 teachers up to now (14,000 at the start of school in 1963), almost 700,000 applicants registered, the majority of whom were unemployed academics. Many substitute teachers who had previously fought in vain for a permanent position felt that the advertisement had left them behind. There were major strikes supported by independent unions.

As reform-minded and determined as the education minister is when it comes to darja, foreign language offerings and teacher training, she becomes hesitant and cautious when it comes to religious instruction, tarbiya diniya. The omnipresence of religious content, whether in language lessons or in subjects such as history and philosophy, is regularly the subject of parental complaints: "My eight-year-old son was traumatized after he had to listen to a detailed description of the hell marts," says Salem H., a computer scientist Blida. “I complained to the director. But she let me down and only explained that our society is Muslim and that it is normal for such teaching content to be part of it. "

Some parents are concerned about the continuing hate speech towards non-Muslims; they criticize the conservative religious education and that the students learn nothing about the history of Algeria before the Islamic conquest in the 7th century. “Our children are taught religious principles, referring to times long past. Instead of dealing with questions of morality, tolerance and openness to the world, one reinforces the idea of ​​religion frozen in rituals in the children, ”says the computer scientist Salem.

In 1993 the government had the textbooks revised, removing all passages that glorified jihad. At that time, the aim was to counteract the increasing influence of radical Islamism through the Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front, FIS).3 At the beginning of the “black decade”, as the time of the Algerian civil war (1991–2002) is called, the school was still accused of failing to teach young people “to think rationally and to distance themselves from radical religious ideas “Says a trade unionist from the independent teachers' association for secondary schools (Conseil des lycées d'Algérie, CLA). Today it is to a certain extent the other way round: “Overall, society has become more pious and requires schools to teach their children Islamic rituals. Teachers spend hours teaching how to properly pray and do ritual ablutions. Or they tell in great detail about the persecution that the first Muslims suffered. "

One can understand the reluctance of the education minister: a demand like that of Mostefa Lacheraf, who wanted to abolish religious education in public schools in the 1970s, would probably provoke even more violent protests today than the proposal to introduce darja as the language of instruction.

1 According to the school authorities, out of 1,000 children who attend school, only 41 will later graduate. In the summer of 2016, 818,000 students were admitted to the Abitur exams (10 percent of the national student body).

2 Mostefa Lacheraf, “Des noms et des lieux. Mémoires d’une Algérie oubliée ”, Algiers (Casbah Éditions) 1988.

3 The FIS was founded in 1989 and banned after the signs of success in the parliamentary elections in 1991/1992. That was the beginning of the civil war.

Translated from the French by Jakob Farah

Akram Belkaïd is a journalist and author. His most recent publication was “Être arabe aujourd’hui”, Paris (Éditions Carnets Nord) 2011.

Le Monde diplomatique, October 13, 2016, by Akram Belkaïd