ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — As a new school year begins in Algeria, third-grade students returning to primary school on Wednesday will learn English, as well as French, as a foreign language — a small but symbolic step towards moving the country away from its past as a French colony which some say is long overdue.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced in June that the Arabic-speaking North African country would gradually start extending English to 20,000 primary school students across the country. The language shift is the latest pivot away from France, with Algiers opting in recent years not to renew transport and water contracts with French companies and award them to regional companies instead.
“English is the international language, also the language of science and technology,” the French-speaking president said in his announcement.
Tebboune stressed that this move was not intended to replace ties with France but to modernize Algeria. Young people who use English fluently on social media were at the center of protests that eventually overtook his predecessor, strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in 2019.
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Yet such changes have been a delicate dance for Tebboune. He wants to expand the use of English without alienating older generations, the middle class and elites who speak French. The president was evasive about whether he ultimately intended to replace French more widely with English.
In a public television interview in June, he called French “spoils of war”, a compliment suggesting that the language had benefited the country even though the language resulted from the colonization of Algeria by France from 1830 to 1962.
The leader of the Islamist party Abderrazak Makri was less diplomatic at the time: “We must put an end to France’s colonial heritage. (Even) President Macron speaks more English than French abroad. Now it is English which is the universal language, it is time for the Algerians to appropriate it, to get in tune with the great nations,” he said.
As it stands, French will remain the primary second language in the country of nearly 44 million people. This year, secondary students will continue to receive five hours of instruction in French and three hours of English per week. In primary schools, third graders will learn 90 minutes of English per week in addition to their five hours of French.
Commentators say the change, while gradual, remains highly political as it charts the course for an English-speaking future.
“The teaching of English in primary school…goes beyond language and pedagogy. It is an ideological operation whose goal is the gradual replacement of French by English in Algerian society and in institutions,” said Ahmed Tessa, State Counselor in the French language.
“It’s a way to distance yourself from France and its linguistic and cultural heritage in Algeria.”
Others say that speaking English is simply a reality of today’s world and that Algeria has been slow to modernize.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” said Kahina Mahmoudi, a mother of two. ” We’re late. You know, my kids started learning English (even) before they went back to school. I repeat, we are late.
Thomas Adamson contributed from Paris
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