Algeria’s Higher-Education Minister Encourages Switch From French to English

/ 03 Sep 2019

Algeria’s Higher-Education Minister Encourages Switch From French to English

A proposal by the Algerian minister of higher education to promote English as an official language of teaching and administration at the country’s universities has received a mixed response from students and professors.

Tayeb Bouzid, who was appointed minister of higher education in April, published his proposal on his Facebook page on August 20, at the conclusion of a national conference of Algerian universities.

“I hope that my graduate research next year will be in English. I believe that English is the future in Algeria.”

Antar Ben Sari   A student of precision optics at the University of Farhat Abbas in Sétif

“In order to increase the visibility of research in higher education institutions,” Bouzid wrote, “and to open up to the international environment … it has been decided to set up a think-tank of specialists and administration officials to present proposals for promoting the use of English in teaching and research.”

Bouzid has been a forceful advocate for introducing English as the main teaching language in Algerian higher education, and relying less on French, the language of the former colonial power. In his previous post as rector of the University of Batna 2, from 2015 to 2019, Bouzid called for gradually replacing French with English, according to the Algerian news website El Watan.

In a letter to the rectors of the nation’s universities in July, the minister asked that official correspondence be written in Arabic and English. Speaking at Mentouri University in Constantine on July 8, El Watan reported, Bouzid said, “French does not get you anywhere!”

Popular Support for English

In August, the higher education ministry posted a Google poll on its website, asking respondents if they supported the use of English as a teaching language. Of the 94,060 who completed the poll, the ministry reported, 94.3 percent voted in favor of the proposal. (Such online polls, of course, are not as reliable as surveys that take a representative sample of a population.)

“The biggest problem with this proposal is that it comes at the wrong time,” said Azzedine Layachi, a specialist in the politics and economics of North Africa, and a professor of political science at St John’s University, in New York.

Since February, large numbers of Algerians have taken part in a popular movement to change the country’s government and introduce fundamental reform. Students have been prominent in the weekly demonstrations. (See a related article, “Algerian Students Thwart President Bouteflika’s Bid for Fifth Term.”)

“The protesters do not see this government as legitimate,” Layachi said. “They believe there should be a caretaker government, and that the present regime should not be making policy. The public want to throw these rascals out.”

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Still, many students take the proposal seriously. Some view it with cautious support, others with anxiety.

“The biggest problem with this proposal is that it comes at the wrong time. The protesters do not see this government as legitimate. They believe … the present regime should not be making policy.”

Azzedine Layachi   A professor of political science at St John’s University, in New York

For example, Antar Ben Sari, a student at the Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics at the University of Ferhat Abbas in Sétif, in eastern Algeria, supported the minister’s proposal, calling it “very important.” He said that the latest and best research in precision optics is published in English, while French sources lag behind by months or even years.

But Ben Sari noted that making the transition from French to English would be difficult for many students and professors because most Algerians have been educated in French from primary school onwards.

“I admit that my level of English is average, but I welcome the idea of generalizing English, and I will strive to improve my attitude towards this language,” Ben Sari said. “I hope that my graduate research next year will be in English. I believe that English is the future in Algeria.”

Mixed Signals in the Job Market

On the other hand, Ferial Aymour, a second-year French language student at the Institute of Languages at the University of Bouzareah in Algiers, was anxious about increasing the academic use of English.

She chose to specialize in French because, she said, “French is the main language of the labor market. Most open positions require the French language, especially in education.” Internationally, many defenders of French point out that it is spoken on five continents, including Africa and North America (particularly Quebec); that the number of French speakers is growing, and that it is a popular language in diplomacy and on the Internet.

But Aymour fears that the number of opportunities for French speakers will decline. The minister’s negative attitude about French made her consider dropping French and studying a different subject.

“I myself am not ready to continue my medical studies in English. I may rely on English for research, or to improve my educational performance and future career status, but to change everything to English would be difficult, if not impossible.”

Redouane Djaber   A medical student at the University of Algiers, where medicine is taught in French.

Many students said there were practical obstacles to switching from French to English. Redouane Djaber, a fifth-year student at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Algiers, was skeptical about the practicality of replacing French with English when teaching medicine.

“Ninety percent of the professors who teach us have not mastered English. They and their students all think in French. Medicine in Algeria is taught entirely in French,” he said.

“I myself am not ready to continue my medical studies in English. I may rely on English for research, or to improve my educational performance and future career status, but to change everything to English would be difficult, if not impossible,” Djaber said.

On the other hand, he added, “the training of new students in medical schools and in English from the beginning will have a positive impact on the specialty of medicine, because most of the scientific research and explorations, and periodicals of medicine, are in the world in English, and therefore the promotion of training in medicine is guaranteed by this plan, which must be deeply thoughtful.”

A Political Gesture?

Abdel Raouf Mezghash, a professor of management at the Faculty of Economic Sciences at the University of Annaba, in eastern Algeria, favored the use of English in higher education, but believed that Tayeb Bouzid’s proposal was a political move, intended to attract support for an unloved government. “It comes as a response to the ongoing popular movement, and is an attempt to please people who hate the French language because of the historic background of the colonial period that lasted for more than 130 years,” he said.

On the other hand, “French is no longer a language of science,” Mezghash said. “Its global role is smaller than it was, and the international job market now requires English rather than French.”

Nacereddine Maamari, a professor of law at the University of Mohammed El Amine Dabbaghine in Sétif, believes the minister’s proposal was a serious move and not just a populist gesture. “English is spoken and understood by a quarter of the world’s population,” he said. “More than 95 percent of scientific research is conducted in English, and trade, cinema and telecommunications are all in English, so the move could be very positive.”




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  1. Azzedine Layachi says:

    An interesting article but it fails to get to some serious issues raised by the language question in Algeria. Also, unfortunately, from the interview I gave, you only picked the soundbites you needed to orient the article in the desired direction, which is, as indicated by your last paragraph, a view which favors switching to English (not a surprise since you are in the UK). This was done at the expense of showing the real complexity of the issue in an objective fashion.

  2. Hocine Tandjaoui says:

    Votre article est très tendancieux ! Vous ne citez que des témoins favorables à la proposition du Ministre, vous ne précisez pas qu’il ne s’agit pas d’une décision de son propre gouvernement ( gouvernement de transition), et le seul témoin exprimant des réserves, parle de “geste politique”. Or il y eu beaucoup de prises de position disant clairement qu’il s’agit d’une tentative de diviser le Hirak, au même titre que l’interdiction du drapeau kabyle. Le vrai cadre de cette discussion est une guerre culturelle contre ceux qui veulent plus de démocratie. Il y a eu un très don article de Kamal Daoud, que vous n’avez pas cité, mais que vous pouvez parfaitement faire traduire!

  3. Edward Fox says:

    Language in Algeria is such a complex issue that no single article can claim to encompass it in its entirety. This piece was a snapshot of opinion, without any claim to be the last word.

    • Edward is right in saying that “language in Algeria” is a complex issue and your paper does not at all address it. Long time ago, Algeria made a choice to Give Arabic language the dominant role in education but yet science, health science and medicine, agronomy and other technology programs are taught in French. French is now kind of language of the health, technology and business leaders while Arabic is the language of lawyers, teachers and other low-ranking civil servants and politicians when they hold an academic degree !…. It’s quite a clear-cut line there which is starting to hurt as the best baccalaureate holders who achieve a higher grade in sciences will go for medicine, pharmacy, engineering and IT leaving law and literature to the rest who will form the largest chunk of university educated jobless groups. Here is the root of that discussion about switching from French to English but that does not address the issue of how to create opportunities for Arabic-trained students. making the switch or adding English will not change anything unless we reform the whole education system and ensure harmony between the job market and opportunities and the education programs. It is a shame to learn that Algerian constitute one of the highly trained community of immigrants to Canada and United States and of course France where they generally perform very well in English and/or French. Trained initially in French, some of them became highly visible in the academic and technology communities…not sure if switching to English and scarifying decades of investments in French-language dominated research and education will be a wise move ! of course there are political motivations which I just don’t want to consider at this stage.

      On the other hand the Minister seems to forget that Algeria’s environment includes the whole Maghreb area which use French for business, diplomacy and education (at least a big chunk of the education system delivers its services in French, the rest in Arabic and now marginally in Berber. Beyond the Maghreb, Algeria is aiming at expanding its trade and cooperation to French Speaking countries in West and Central Africa. Finally, research and academic relationships with France, Belgium, Quebec are far from being negligible…so claiming that moving to English will bring Algeria to a better condition in its international stats is quite a poor judgement. Now, developing English as a business and science instrument in Algeria could be an additional tool just as it is being done in other French and Arabic-speaking countries or even Asian countries (I’m thinking about Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and/or Indonesia)

      It is true that adding and strengthening English in the education curricula will certainly provide an added value to the Algerian education system, but thinking of switching French to English is just a poor political product, that yes could attract many politically motivated groups whose motivations are mainly ideological without links to any sustainable education policy for the generations to come.

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