One of my favorite English language Algerian bloggers, Lameen Souag has mentioned something that I have believed to be most pressing for some time. This is the issue of Derja, the Algerian vernacular Arabic dialect. Derja is often dismissed by many Algerians and their leaders as "baby talk" or simply bad Arabic. I have heard from some (my cousin Saleem) that the dialect is the "Bastard child of French rape" and that it should not be encouraged because it undermines Arabic. Derja is a mixture of Arabic, French, various Berber dialects, and in some areas Landino, Spanish, Italian or Maltese. It is as varied as is Algeria’s history and as rich as its landscape. Yet it is not taught in Algerian schools whilst Arabic and French are. The beginnings of Thamazight language education are taking root in places like Batna and Kabylia. Yet the language that is common to so many Algerians, and is usually the first language learned verbally, is denied its proper role in education, literature and more broadly life.
The issue discussed by Lameen at his linguistics blog "Jabal al-Lughat" is that of creating a body of Derja literature. This, Lameen argues (along with Moroccan blogger Laila Lalami), would allow Algerian youths to learn to read and write at an earlier age. As Lalami puts it (you may know her as Moorish Girl)
I'm fully in favor of using Darija, because of the huge impact it would have on the creation of a reading culture. Imagine: All children's books right now are in Modern Standard Arabic, which is a language no one learns until first grade (i.e. age 6 or 7), by which time reading habits are already in place for many kids.
Derja literature would help Algerian kids to appreciate reading at an earlier age because it would not so foreign. Foreign because Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is not usually mutually intelligible with many North African dialects and as Lalami notes, is not formally learned, for the most part, until students enter school. Since MSA is the language of instruction only when students get into school, it functions not as a "natural" language, but really in a way similar to any other foreign language. If MSA were the language that Algerians spoke at home, it would be somewhat different, but the fact that MSA is not a "real" language (it was constructed out of conferences in Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus in order to save the Arabic language from becoming a dead tongue) complicates matters to the fullest. Derja literature would simplify matters, because as different as Derja is from MSA, they are still closely related and the introduction of children’s books in Derja, written in the Arabic script, would aid youths in learning Arabic in school.
But I would not stop there. I would favor the institutionalization of Derja as a valid language, an "Algerian" language as it were. I have nothing against Arabic, but I think that Derja would do several things to enhance the Algerian experience. For instance, I think that many Algerians suffer from an identity crisis as it were when it comes to linguistic and national matters. Many Algerians sadly deny their own national culture for that of some abstract "Arab nation," with whom they are not able to communicate with without a great degree of effort. Things that make Algeria what it is, its eclectic dialect, its semi-pagan mountain rituals, its wonderful dishes, are all too often looked upon with disdain by some Algerians, especially those with more "Arabist" leanings. Algerian Arabs have a proud history, but all too often they are not raised to be proud of it. Still other Algerians are over xenophilic, obsessed with all that is anything but themselves. Some are fascinated, as many Arabs are, with Andalusia, with Iberia. In the US, many Algerian expatriates, quite sadly, pass themselves off as being "Spanish" or "Latin" in their origins. These Algerians have counter parts back home who immerse themselves in the culture of Iberia while rejecting or forgetting their own. Some Algerians, often Imazighen or wealthy, find themselves admiring France more than their own country. Looking across the Mediterranean and wishing that they were not surrounded by sickly Arabs, but "civilized" Frenchmen and Europeans, trying to wish away the "curse" of Islam and all that came with it. There is a lack of confidence among Algerians. Is not the Algerian culture worth admiration and propagation? Why must Algerians conform to a linguistic tradition that is not theirs? Perhaps this model of thought fits Egypt or Syria, but Algeria is not those. Arabic has its place in Algerian history, culture, and religion but today Derja is far more widespread than is Arabic. Derja should be taught alongside Arabic in a mandatory fashion for at least a few years of schooling.
Lameen also mentions the issue of foreign language education in Algeria, which is sadly dominated by French. His sentiments regarding this topic are nearly identical to my own. French is not a bad language, but it has a retarding effect on the prospects that Algerian students have in the world. I believe that English is probably the most useful foreign language that one can learn today. French deems one to, as Lameen puts it, the "ghetto of Fracophony". Many people even in the French speaking world know English, as do those in most of Europe, many parts of the Middle East, Africa, East Asia and even Latin America. As Lameen states, students should
From 3rd grade on, have a choice between French and English(and maybe even Spanish) as the second language, and raise a generation of educated North Africans that do not all share a single foreign language; only thus can the domination of French in North Africa, with all its attendant sociological divisions and economic problems, be ended.
I think the statistic is that of secondary school students in Algeria, upwards from 98% of students take French as their foreign language. Only something like 9,000 students take English. French used to be the first language of diplomacy, now it is at best the second. Algeria should get on the forefront by encouraging students to take English.