Most Algerians speak a colloquial Arabic influenced by French and Amazigh, the language of the Berber minority.
And Education Minister Nouria Benghebrit believes that teachers should use it to help pupils learn Standard Arabic (similar to classical) in grades one and two.
The mere suggestion that dialectal Arabic could be spoken in class has caused a furore, mainly because many people view it as “not a language at all,” explained Lameen Souag, an Algerian linguist at the CNRS research centre in Paris.
“A lot of Algerians reacted to this proposal much as an Englishman might react to teaching in Cockney, for example,” he said in an interview. “They saw it as irresistibly funny to start with but embarrassing at the national level.”
The reform, which stems from a recent national conference on education standards, is primarily about improving children’s cognitive skills, the minister explained.
"By using a child's mother tongue in schooling, you develop an important part of the brain," she told the El-Watan newspaper. "To increase the linguistic abilities of children, you have to build on their mother tongue."
The reform is also about improving their language skills, the minister said in a separate television interview, because 10 per cent of students repeat grade two.
The scientific jury is still out on whether it is more effective to use exclusively the “target language” in class or to use the learners’ first language judiciously, which may explain why the debate on the use of Algeria’s colloquial Arabic (Derja) as a teaching aid has been so acrimonious.
It has, to be sure, infuriated many people.
Some critics have pointed out that only Standard Arabic is set to be taught in Derja. If it is – as the education minister claims – a valid teaching aid, why not use it to teach other subjects like French? they ask rhetorically.
It has also been noted that Derja is a generic term comprising many dialects, which raises a difficult question, according to Zoubir Dendane, professor of sociolinguistics at Abou Bekr Belkaid University in Tlemcen (510 km southwest of Algiers).
“The dialect of Tlemcen is very different from the dialect of Oran, which is about 150 km away,” he explained in a phone interview. “And then the one of Oran is different from the one of Algiers, etc. Which should be chosen? Should it be determined by the local areas? That is why most people do not accept this project.”
Critics have rounded on Benghebrit's French education and accused her of wanting to return Algeria to the colonial era when Derja was encouraged in a bid to undermine Standard Arabic, then seen by the French administration as a threat to French rule and defined at one point as a foreign language.
It hasn’t helped that Benghebrit speaks rather poor Standard Arabic (or Fusha), the multilingual Souag noted in his blog: “Even her conversational dialectal Arabic sounds rather halting when contrasted with the fluency of her frequent and jarring shifts into French.”
Charging that the education minister’s proposals will eventually make it more difficult for Algerians to read Standard Arabic, including the Koran, Muslim clerics have warned that they may call for a school boycott if the reform is implemented.
Amar Talbi, an official with the Muslim Association of Ulema, wants "civic groups and cultural associations to defeat this proposal so that we can preserve the purity of the language", reported AFP.
Some wonder why Algerians are now at each other’s throats about dialectal Arabic in the classroom, which in most Arabic-speaking countries is a non-issue.
“I don’t think this will help at all because I don’t think this is a problem in the first place,” admits Mai Zaki, a linguist with the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. “People who say that it is a problem to teach in Standard Arabic because it’s completely different from the colloquial that the kids use at home forget that it has been the situation of Arabic everywhere – ever since it came to be spoken. It’s a fact of life.”
The debate in Algeria has ignored the fact that teachers have long made use of colloquial Arabic in their classes – a practice that started well before the colonial period, according to Souag.
The furore arguably has perhaps more to do with Algeria’s tortuous relations with the country that occupied it from 1830 to 1962.
In Souag’s blog one visitor referred to the complex love/hate relationship that Algerians allegedly have with the French language: “They hate it theoretically and publicly but they love it practically and secretly.”
Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011