TLEMCEN, Algeria—Asma Medjaoui, a sixth-year medical student at the University of Tlemcen, has always struggled with French. Unfortunately for her and other students, French is the language of higher education in Algeria.
Medjaoui said adjusting to reading, writing and speaking in French since high school has been difficult for her. As a result, the first months of medical school were a struggle.
“The first few months of university were not easy for me,” she said. “I was ashamed to speak in Arabic in class, to ask the professor questions in Arabic.”
Medjaoui and a large number of her fellow university students in Algeria struggle to pursue their scientific studies because after studying in Arabic in primary and secondary school, all scientific specialties in university are taught in French. As a result, many repeat the year or drop out of school.
“Courses are all in French, the teachers do not even say a word in Arabic,” said Mimouna El Hadj Mimoun, a first-year medical student who took French lessons at a private school during her last year of high school to help her get by.
She, like many students, studied French before graduating or during the summer before the new academic year at one of the many language schools created to help these students.
“I am preparing now. I have to acquire a strong enough level to pass my medical studies,” said Marwan Hadji, a student who just graduated from the Lycee Daoud Mohamed high school, and will be studying medicine at the University of Tlemcen.
In spite of the additional work and expense, students say they realize they are stuck in a self-perpetuating system. “This is an important language for an Algerian doctor because everything is written in French: orders, patient records, etc,” said Asma Medjaoui, a sixth-year medical student at the University of Tlemcen.
But the number of people mastering French in Algeria is declining.
Since the country’s independence from the French in 1962, the language’s status changed from first to second official language, being replaced by Arabic. As a result, many professors were recruited from Egypt and Syria, where French speakers are not common.
“In the early 1980s, the country’s language policy was to replace French with Arabic,” said Dr. Tewfik Benghabrite who teaches in the foreign-language faculty at the University of Tlemcen. “Which was normal except that, instead of valuing it, they proceeded a little awkwardly.”
Since primary and secondary education was switched to Arabic in the 1980’s, some subjects such as geography, history and science were all taught in French and therefore students achieved relatively good levels in that language.
“We Arabized all science disciplines such as math, physics, etc. but higher education did not follow this approach: 80 percent of university courses are taught in French and as a result, training and documentation remain in French,” said Benghabrite.
Kalkali Elhadi, who teaches journalism at the University of Algiers, says the level of French language skills has declined among students because they are not taught well.
“Today’s French teachers are victims of a university education that was not good enough,” he said. “They were trained by unqualified teachers because of nepotism and corruption.”
Algeria has gone through many years of soul searching in terms of its identity and what languages to teach in, use, and in one context. Still, the overall prevalent ideology in Algeria today of Arabism makes it almost impossible to impose more French curriculum in primary and secondary schools to address the gap in science teaching.
“For our young students to better master French, it would take a very committed political decision,” said Benghabrite. “It should be that professors and students are given an enriching curriculum and serious textbooks.”