Sixty years after the end of the war of independence, relations between France and Algeria remain tense. Now, the struggle has moved to the linguistic front. Algeria is introducing English in primary schools with the more or less avowed aim of getting rid of the language of its former colonial power.
The question of language is often the subject of political controversy in Algeria. The Berber language only gained official status in 2016, and French is still perceived as the language of the oppressor. So, beginning this year, from September 2022, Algerian children will start learning English from the third year of primary school, the same year they begin French. Until now, the study of English did not begin until middle school.
The reform was implemented in a hurry, which does not bode well for its success. A shortage of teachers had to be overcome, which led to a rush to recruit professional translators. But a translator is not a teacher, and this strategy may not solve the problem. The textbooks too were rushed through too, having been printed in less than two months. The government, though, is confident that the deadlines have been met.
The temptation to get rid of French—the language of the coloniser—regularly resurfaces in Algeria. Some people therefore welcomed the decision to introduce English to children as soon as possible. Abdelhamid Abed, an English teacher in an Algerian secondary school, explained to Le Figaro that “French has had its day.” He advocates pragmatism in this area, but the historical underpinnings are far too present to be brushed aside in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘technology.’ President Abdelmadjid Tebboune himself, in the Council of Ministers on June 19th, surprised his entourage by describing the language of Molière as a “spoils of war:” an apparently depreciatory phrase, but also a way of emphasising that Algeria cannot easily get rid of this language, which today irrigates both its economy and its institutions. Moreover, Algeria is still actively dependent on relations with its former metropolis. More than eight million Algerians live in France, spend their holidays in Algeria, and come and go between the two countries. France is their horizon, and such links do not exist with England or the United States.
Nevertheless, anti-French sentiment is on the rise in Algeria, especially since Emmanuel Macron’s statements in October 2021 when he condemned the political-military system in place. English is beginning to be used in official correspondence, in ministries, and, in particular, in higher education. President Tebboune, whose power is contested, may give the impression that he is giving in to this trend in order to strengthen his legitimacy. A political calculation, therefore, which is not without consequences: Algerian children now find themselves with four languages to learn in primary school—Arabic, Berber, French, and English, not to mention the dialectal Arabic spoken in everyday life—which will undoubtedly present learning challenges. Some linguists do not hesitate to speak of an “impossible equation.”
The French government has not reacted officially to this reform. But it seems to be taking note, as it has already done elsewhere in Africa, of the decline of French being taught in schools, by concentrating on other forms of cooperation, concretised by the latest visit of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to Algeria.