In November 2016 prominent Kuwaiti Islamic scholar Tareq Al-Suwaidan unintentionally became an internet meme when, during a recorded lecture delivered in the Moroccan coastal city of Temara, he urged the country and in particular the youth to ditch the French language in favour of learning English. The clip was picked up quickly by the pro-Israel propaganda organisation, Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI TV), which is known for making memes of translated Arabic political and religious video clips.
“French is a waste of time,” said Suwaidan in response to an on-screen message in the language that had appeared on the laptop he was using at the time. His words were met with laughter and applause from the audience. “French is not the language of science. It’s not the language of tourism or the language of civilisation. France is one of the most backward countries when it comes to administration.”
He told the audience that, today, “English is the language of science.” While acknowledging that it was once Arabic, Suwaidan then called on Moroccans to liberate themselves from “the Francophone hegemony” of the kingdom’s colonial past. “We must break through this barrier, because no good comes of it. Take note of this, and go study English.”
Nearly six years later, it seems as though neighbouring Algeria has taken the sheikh’s recommendation to heart. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune instructed primary schools in the North African country in June to start teaching English lessons in time for the new school term which started last month. “French is a spoil of war, but English is an international language,” explained Tebboune in an interview on state-run TV in July.
While Arabic and Tamazight are official languages in Algeria, French is spoken widely and used by the government, in academia and in commerce. Yet Algeria’s fraught and complex history with France and its brutal legacy of colonialism has made the language increasingly unattractive, while there has been a growing interest in learning English instead.
The implementation of the changes, while criticised by some as too rushed, has been interpreted widely as Algeria’s intention to move away from the language of its former colonial occupier and embrace a more practical and economically-beneficial language, albeit with its own colonial baggage.
According to one thesis submitted in 2020 at Algeria’s University of Abdelhamid Ibn Badis Mostaganem, in line with the forces of globalisation English has become the business lingua franca for Algerian companies, especially as they become increasingly involved in international commerce. “English does not have a strong presence in Algerian business, but since the trade is moving to a free market, the demand for English increased,” noted the author of the thesis. One interviewee cited in the study mentioned that despite English not being commonly spoken in Algeria, it should be taught in primary schools.
Algeria’s steering towards the Anglophone world has been a steady process, with the idea proposed in September 2010 by former Minister of Higher Education Rachid Harraoubia, who disclosed that his department “was working seriously on the possibility of introducing the English language instead of French in universities, especially in scientific and technological branches.”
In 2019, essentially validating what Suwaidan argued three years earlier, Algeria’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Tayeb Bouzid, spoke of the importance of implementing English in the educational system, as it is “the language of international channels and those of scientific journals”. As a proponent of replacing French with English, Bouzid has gone on record as stating that “French does not get you anywhere.”
That same year, the higher education ministry posted a Google poll on its website asking respondents if they supported the use of English as a teaching language. Ninety-four per cent of those who took part were in favour of the proposal.
Last year the creeping irrelevance of French in Algeria’s higher education system became evident when three government ministries announced a ban on the use of French in their institutions, stressing that Arabic was to be used in all official correspondence.
In a report by Al-Fanar Media last year, one first-year student at the Higher School of Mathematics remarked that she was surprised to see application forms were in Arabic and English and that, “Teachers no longer speak French except on some rare occasions.”
The absence of the colonial language was also noticed during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to gas-rich Algeria as he attempted to mend ties between the two countries, incidentally amid France’s growing energy insecurities. His hostile reception from the public notwithstanding, the lectern used by Macron to address the media was inscribed with “French Presidency” in Arabic and English only.
“I wasn’t surprised but I was shocked [Algeria] would do such a thing during the visit of a French president,” France’s former Ambassador to Algeria, Xavier Driencourt, was quoted as saying.
France’s waning cultural and political influence in the country was observed recently by France24 in a video report on the introduction of English in Algerian schools. Speaking to the channel, one retired primary school teacher who spoke optimistically of the development said nonchalantly that Algerians are “sick of French”.
Algeria’s transition away from the widespread use of the French language is understandable for several reasons and, as the country opens up and develops its energy sector further, the adoption of English in trade and education will bring about more economic opportunities. However, while it is a step in the right direction, Algeria should also consider the future beyond English as a business language and the limitations of western hegemony in general. Egypt, for example, has recently introduced the option of teaching Chinese in selected middle schools in recognition of its growing ties with Beijing. It may be prudent for Algeria to do the same as China’s influence continues to expand across Africa.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.