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ALGIERS: Algerian primary schools have rushed to introduce English classes, in a move critics say was rushed but others hope it could be a knockout blow to the language of former occupier France .
Language is a hot topic in the North African country, where French is still widely spoken six decades after independence that followed 132 years of colonial rule and a grueling eight-year war.
“The French language is spoils of war, but English is the international language,” President Abdelmadjid Tebboune told reporters in July.
Only weeks earlier he had ordered the Ministry of Education to introduce English into primary school curricula by the new term, which started on September 21.
This was the first step in a larger plan to boost English tuition fees in the years to come.
The status of French has been a hotly debated issue for decades in Algeria, which only has Arabic and Berber Tamazight as official languages.
French permeates public life, is used for science and business education, and is spoken by millions of Algerians in the diaspora, especially in France.
Yet it also evokes memories of colonial rule.
“I want to abandon the language of the colonizer and adopt the language used all over the world,” said Hacene, the father of a primary school student in the capital Algiers.
“Teaching English in primary school makes sense,” said Farouk Lazizi, whose two children are in primary school in Algiers.
But he said he had mixed feelings about the president’s decision, which had set up a race against time.
In less than two months, 5,000 new teachers were recruited and put into accelerated training, while a new textbook was written and distributed to schools in record time.
“We have to prepare things well, because most Algerian parents are not ready to teach English to their children,” Lazizi said.
The Department of Education said some 60,000 people had applied for the new jobs, which require an undergraduate degree in English or translation.
Officials argued that the moves to tighten English tuition are driven by practical concerns rather than ideology, but did not offer an explanation for the tight timeline expected for the change.
The process was so rushed that the state hired translators who “are not even trained to teach” to fill the shortage of English-speaking teachers, said linguist Abderzak Dourari.
In addition to Arabic and French, some schools in the country also teach Tamazight, which is spoken by millions of Algerians.
Some education experts fear that even if the issues are resolved, adding another language to classrooms would still be difficult.
“Teaching four languages to primary school children will confuse them,” said pedagogy expert and former English teacher Ahmed Tessa.
The decision on primary schools is the latest stage in an uphill battle that has pitted conservatives who want the total abolition of French against proponents of the language, who tend to be more secular.
Sadek Dziri of UNPEF, a powerful teachers’ union, hailed what he called a “late” decision to adopt English, “the language of science and technology”.
“Algeria will be able to abandon French, which is the colonizer’s language and which did not give good results,” said a relative from Algiers who asked to remain anonymous.
Another said French-speaking Algerians “do not approve of this decision” and want to keep French in schools.
Abdelhamid Abed, who teaches English at a college in Algiers, said “French has had its day”.
“We should not see this question in terms of rivalry between French and English, but from a practical point of view.
But linguist Dourari said it would be difficult to simply replace French with English, given Algeria’s history and its cultural and economic ties with France, including tourism.
“There is an Algerian diaspora of more than eight million people living in France,” he stressed.
“There are mixed families, coming and going.”
Tessa insisted President Tebboune’s ‘war aim’ remark – made ahead of an August visit by Frenchman Emmanuel Macron – reflected the benefits Algeria has gained from the Frenchman’s presence in its “institutional and socio-economic life”.
“Those who are hostile to French thought it would be removed from primary school curricula entirely,” he said. “They dream of seeing it disappear.”