Algerian leaders switched their official language from French to Arabic after the country’s war of independence in the early 1960s.
Forty years later, the government labeled Tamazight—the mother tongue of the Berbers— as a “national” language. The move fell short of putting Tamazight on par with Arabic but nonetheless recognized that 25 percent of Algerians speak the language.
Today, however, Berbers are still finding it hard to gain acceptance of Tamazight, a dilemma that is leading many to complain that they have no place in Algerian education. (See related story: The Berber Language: Officially Recognized, Unofficially Marginalized?)
“In Kabyle, Tamazight lessons are almost empty because parents prefer their children to study Arabic, French, English or other foreign languages,” said Djaffer Ouchelouche, a doctoral student in Tamazight at Tizi Ouzou, referring to a region of northern Algeria that has been a subject of his research. “There are no jobs in Tamazight.”
The United Nations has taken note of the problem.
“More human and financial resources could be attributed to the progressive teaching of Tamazight at all levels” in Algeria, said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh in June after he presented his findings of a mission to Algeria earlier this year.
While Algeria has made strides in teaching Tamazight—including establishing universities, other educational institutions and radio and television channels to promote the language— more needs to be done, said Singh. He listed consistent support of Tamazight language teaching as among the most pressing problems in Algerian education.
“Admission rates may be lower in some areas such as rural areas and among the poorest households, and much remains to be done to ensure that disabled children achieve equality in access to education and for the teaching of Tamazight,” he said.
The country’s current efforts reflect the fruits of years of struggle by Tamazight advocates.
In 1990, the Department of Amazigh language and culture opened, with around 10 students, at the University of Tizi Ouzou. Around 800 students now take Tamazight courses at the school. A year later, a similar department opened at the University of Bejaia. In 2010, universities in Bouira and Batna opened Amazigh departments.
Higher education was at the vanguard of a broader social movement.
In 1995, after a Berber uprising that included a school boycott in Kabyblia where parents protested that their children could speak but not write in their native language, Algerian officials introduced the Tamazight language into primary education. The government also created the High Commission for Amazigh (another term of Berbers) to help promote the language and Berber culture.
Around 32,500 primary and secondary students took Tamazight courses in 16 school districts with around 1,300 teachers in 1995. Today, more than 200,000 students take Tamazight courses, but the number of school districts teaching the courses has decreased to around eight, said an education professor, Ali Bekhti, at Mouloud Mammeri University of Tizi-Ouzou.
The increase in students reflects the interest among Tamazight-speaking families.
But because the Algerian education system doesn’t include Tamazight in its requirements for the baccalaureate that is necessary to enter university, the decline in school districts teaching the language illustrates how Tamazight education still faces challenges.
“The optional nature of Tamazight does not encourage learners, especially those who are taking exams,” the High Commission for Amazigh concluded in a report.
Algerian Education Minister Nouria Benghabrit admitted that Tamazight teaching faces “real problems,” especially in standardizing how it is taught and in the actual demand from pupils and their families.
An ancient language spoken throughout North Africa, Tamazight usually uses Latin characters. In Batna in northeastern Algeria, however, a few schools use Arabic script. In southern Algeria, some courses use the Berber script of Tifinagh.
The government is studying how to standardize the language and its script. But Tamazight advocates do not believe those efforts will work. Tamazight is a catchall term for many dialects that span the African continent. It cannot be limited to a single version per se, they said.
“Many people forget that Tamazight is based on the ensemble of Amazigh dialects that already exist,” said Fatima Zahra, an Arabic teacher at the Boumachra High School in Tlemcen. “Tamazight isn’t a language, but a tool of intercommunication between the Amazigh dialects. It is a step that has the means to allow the Amazigh dialects to intercommunicate, in a global and enriching way.”
Abderrezak Dourari, a manager at the Pedagogic and Linguistic Center of Tamazight Education, said the government could encourage more interest in Tamazight by putting it on par with Algeria’s other languages. Interest is ripe in some regions of the country, he added.
“Its teaching is influenced by the demand,” said Dourari. “It is not a mandatory language like Arabic or French. For example in Oran, Tamazight is no longer taught. In Algiers, it’s reduced to a few groups of students. In Ghardaia, it’s not taught at all, while it is a Berberophone society.”
Haddouche Jugurtha, a high school student in Tizi Ouzou, agreed.
“Tamazight is a mother tongue and an original language of the entire people of North Africa,” said Jugurtha. “It must be mandatory in all schools for its enrichment and development.”
Addressing those concerns, the Algerian Ministry of National Education and the High Commission of Amazigh signed an agreement in February—timed to coincide with the UN’s visit to study Algerian education—to promote teaching Tamazight throughout the country.
“We need to mobilize all human resources to gradually generalize the teaching of Tamazight language,” said Benghabrit.
Meanwhile, in the four Algerian universities where Tamazight language courses are offered, academics are holding the torch for the language whether or not political efforts to encourage it succeed.
“Although the educational and social conditions have not been improved, the dedication of the teachers has persevered,” said Ali Bekhti.