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How language makes and unmakes our world: French language policies in Algeria

As part of  our #MDAcademics space, in a two part essay, Barâa Arar discusses the impact of French Language policies in Algeria, how it impacts not only language but a whole culture, and how to overcome.

Part One

Language is a fundamental hallmark of the human experience. Without language we cannot express trivial things; “Pass the salt, please”, “Make a left at the next light”, “Did you take the garbage out?” Most importantly, language is a channel for our anger, our affections, our frustrations, our desires, our surprise, our interests, and our anxieties. We imbue words with meanings and they become our anchors to the world.

Language makes up our world. And because it holds such an integral position in constructing our lives, language is readily accessible as a weapon of division.

In the Algerian Berber, poet Si Mohand writes:

Here I am, wounded eagle
Lost in the mist
Left to tears and cries of grief […]
I find no joy in pleasures […]
From east to west,
The land is shattered
The world for all is torn apart
Men born to milk and honey
Wander naked in the forests,
Without even a shirt of wool.
Thus has God willed this century
Where, limed in anxiety
We stumble at every step.

In this excerpt, the poet reflects on the devastating effects of French colonial policies on himself, his family, and his land. He wrote the poem in exile in 1871, after his family was executed and their familial lands forcibly confiscated by the French regime. His poignant words are testimony of the devastating human collateral of the French occupation of Algeria from 1830 to 1962.

For me, his clipped, pared down words show something of the devastating effects of colonial trauma on language.  He describes the land as “shattered” and the world as “torn apart”, as colonial forces are actively unmaking his world. The references to nudity and elemental substances such as milk, honey, and wool, reveal the ways his world has dissolved into an elemental, even proto-linguistic state.

The poem has many resonances for me in expressing the devastating impacts of French colonial language assimilation policies in occupied Algeria. These polices stifled the use of Arabic language and served to destabilise and dissolve a sense of belonging for pre-colonial Algerian communities. With the suppression of Arabic came intergenerational disconnect and the disenfranchisement of those who did not adopt the colonial language. After 132 years of French occupation, in a post-colonial context, the Arabic language became a tool for the development of a nationalist Algerian way of being. Arabic became a memory site, facilitating a cementing of a newfound collective Algerian identity. The reintroduction of the Arabic language and culture primed the newly independent state to rebuild its community of citizens.

The colonial tactics of systemic cultural erasure, named as epistemicide by some scholars, are transnational. As a second-generation immigrant and settler of Turtle Island (Canada), I see the present-day consequences of these destructive colonial tactics within Indigenous communities. In Reconciliation attempts, the Canadian government recently pledged monetary support to Indigenous languages and dialects. Yet these languages are not constitutionally protected nor are they taught in public schools. Is material support enough? How do we reconcile the dominance of English and French, two colonial languages, with the ongoing systemic erasure of Indigenous languages?

French conquest Algiers

Capture of Constantine, Algeria

The French colonial project in Algeria began in 1830 with the invasion of Algiers and ended in 1962 with the declaration of “une Algerie Algerienne” – an Algerian Algeria. France’s agenda in Algeria stands out among many other European imperial efforts because its scope extended beyond economic exploitation. The regime was interested in the forced exportation of French nationalism, particularly to Algeria.

The French regime adopted a civilising mission, which informed their top-down efforts to simultaneously assimilate Algerians into French culture. It is vital to thoroughly understand the extra-militaristic motivations that fuelled the occupation. The war in and colonisation of Algeria were not simply economic or political – the colonisation of Algeria was an ideological war, forged at multiple levels, including the psychosocial, linguistic, and cultural.

“One of the most potent cultural weapons in the maintenance of French hegemonic domination in Algeria was the rigorous and calculated language assimilation policy.  To recognise the depths of the trauma that ensued, it is important to understand the central role of Arabic language in pre-colonial Algerian culture “

To maintain the domination of Algerian land and people, it was imperative French colonisation manifested in all spheres of daily life. The French regime used cultural weapons to continuously pervert Algerian conceptions of nationhood and self. From linguistic expression to traditional dress and bureaucratic practices, the French regime infiltrated and annexed pre-contact Algerian ways of life. Algerian ways of being were forcibly dissolved under the weight of those of the coloniser. In order to survive under occupation, many colonised communities assumed, unwillingly and often unconsciously, the identity of the colonisers, which is the ultimate colonial fantasy.

One of the most potent cultural weapons in the maintenance of French hegemonic domination in Algeria was the rigorous and calculated language assimilation policy.  To recognise the depths of the trauma that ensued, it is important to understand the central role of Arabic language in pre-colonial Algerian culture and its role in building collective identity.

Before the French invasion of Algeria and the implementation of extensive assimilation policies, Arabic and Berber were the two main native tongues. (I would like to note here that Berber communities and their cultural practices also suffered under French occupation. My research focuses only on the Arabic language since it was the language of official correspondence and the colloquial preference of many natives).

Arabic language instruction in Algeria, especially in rural areas, was inextricably tied up with Islamic institutions called madrasas (‘schools’ in Arabic). These institutions were religious in nature and acted as more than just hubs of language instruction. Madrasas socialised young students into local culture and practices. As such, madrasas taught Islam, understood both as an organised religion and a cultural heritage. Coupled with Arabic, Islam formed the bedrock of pre-contact Algerian culture. These schools were spaces for the inculcation of Algerian civic and religious virtues— the inculcation of an Algerian identity.

madrasa, Algeria

Madrasa, Algeria (maybe Biskra region), 1928

Every new generation is taught to perform community. We see this is in various contexts, especially those that centralise oral traditions. Professor of Anthropology Charles Hirschkind uses cassette-sermon practices in modern Egypt to explore what he calls the ethics of listening. His argument, aligned with the ideas of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, is that the relationship between sensory perception and emotive response is created and taught. That is to say, our perceptual capacities are informed and honed by our socio-political contexts, or in Hirschkind’s words by “requisite sensibilities.” Through repetitive informal sensory practices, the community conditions those in it to reflect their own socially valued traditions. Simply put, we are taught how to look, listen, hear, and notice. More importantly, these modes of perception are informed not only by the present, but by our shared histories, as Walter Benjaminsuggests in his essay The Storyteller.

Without doubt, Arabic constituted an important part of Algerian culture, its reproduction, and its continuity. French policymakers were aware of the crucial role of Islam and Arabic in the creation of collective native identities. Arabic language institutions were not simply linguistic – they served as sites for identity-making, storytelling, and trans-generational continuities. It is important to consider the gendered aspects of such language politics. Algerian culture is not matriarchal, however, women in their capacities as mothers and grandmothers were often tasked with the transmission of Islamic and Arabic practices.

That is why, oral literature, in particular, was a potent expression of women’s traditional culture making and, during the French occupation, of resistance.  Words are imbued with meaning, connecting individuals to their community and to cultural and spiritual cosmologies. As such, words are more than a mode of communicating meaning. The act of speaking and listening, are foundational to inter-personal relationships. There is also a materiality to words that exceeds their most commonly perceived quality as being carriers of meaning within linguistic systems, as Mariam Motamedi-Fraser has argued. The feel and sounds of words in a mouth or to an ear, or how inscribed words feel to fingertips are all a part of complex “word-world’ relations.

“French education curricula used the motto “espouse the nation,”that also translates as “adopt the nation,” a clear indication of the significance of French language as more than a method of expression but a form of identity, a form of storytelling”

Consequently, the erasure of Arabic, through the erasure of madrasas, became a tool of simultaneous material and symbolic violence and epistemicide. From the initial invasion of Algeria onwards, the French regime developed educational policies to dismantle a contingent sense of community for Algerian populations. Madrasas were systemically eradicated and replaced with French language schools. Families faced penalties if their children attended Arabic language classes. Gradually, from the mid-1800s onwards, attendance of a French public school became mandatory in most regions of Algeria.

French education curricula used the motto “espouse the nation,” that also translates as “adopt the nation,” a clear indication of the significance of French language as more than a method of expression but a form of identity, a form of storytelling. For instance, the literary curricula prescribed to Algerian students ways of being in the world derived through reading quintessentially French novels by writers like Honoré Balzac and Emilie Zola. Algerian students did not see themselves represented in the works they were reading either linguistically or culturally. What does rural Algeria have to do with Balzac’s Paris?

Zhor Zerari, who was an Algerian freedom fighter, writes in her poem “The School of Freedom” about the alienation inherent in the French colonial education she received as an Arab Algerian. At the height of the War of Independence in 1960, she wrote:

A jettisoned school bag
On a street corner.
Selected High Points
Of the History of France


On a history book—
“Our Ancestors the Gauls…”


The children of today
Do not study in the classroom.
They are writing the history
Of a Free Algeria.

Zerari’s words speak of how French language education not only eliminated a native language and an ecosystem in the vein of Motamedi Fraser’s “word-world” relations, it also instituted a false ancestral memory. With the forced adoption of French comes the imposition of an alien identity and memory. Instead of an immersion in Algerian languages, and by extension collective memories and identities, students consume a history antithetical to their own. The explicit French alignment with the ancestral Gauls reinforces France’s power as an inheritance of longstanding white European hegemony.

French language policies are one of the ways the civilising mission aimed to manifest the regime’s myth of absolute power over an occupied people. The regime strategically imposed French language instruction to extend beyond militaristic domination and to assert a pervasive cultural colonialism. French imperial socialisation trained students to hear, listen, and notice with a history foreign, and also hostile, to their own.

Those who adopted French became economically and socially mobile, while those who resisted were seen as backward. Girls and women were disproportionally affected by these policies since their families often withdrew them from newly Franchised schools, to preserve their Algerian cultural authenticity. Algerians were often tasked with the informal cultural education of their children, and as such, in the hope of salvaging some pre-contact practices and knowledge, these practices were relegated to the home. Since many of them did not receive formal education in this way, levels of illiteracy, in both Arabic and French, were higher in women. Where once madrasa’s were an important, and socially acceptable, place for girls and women to congregate and socialise, they were now moved to private spaces and denied a formal education.

The ideological domination fuelling French language instruction was not simply an abstraction; it impacted the material realities of Algerian communities. It stratified Algerians based on their language choices; Algerians who kept their linguistic traditions alive suffered socially and materially since it limited their economic mobility. Eventually, by the early nineteenth century, many Algerians began to abandon, actively or subconsciously, their native Arabic tongue. The French regime interpreted this transformation as a major step toward the assumption of a French colonial identity. The French colonising power identified itself as an omnipresent power through the enforcement of its language as sovereign and exclusive. In the Algerian context, French language instruction is not a benign cross-cultural relation but is a manifestation of ideological domination or hegemony.


Arrival of French Marshal Randon in Algiers in 1857

French language policies rendered Arabic foreign to Algerians and denied it as a space to express emotion and build community. The Algerian “requisite sensibilities” were replaced with those unfamiliar and incompatible with the land and peoples’ histories. Tanja Stampfl refers to this vacuum of storytelling and corresponding listening in the Algerian context as the: “impossibility of telling.”

Yet, Algerians resisted the occupation in a multitude of ways, including creating private spaces to celebrate Arabic, in increasingly alien conditions.

To be continued…

Barâa Arar is a recent graduate of Carleton University’s College of Humanities with a research focus in art history, politics, and colonial resistance. She is a community organiser, writer, and the co-host of The Watering Hole podcast. She tweets at @livewellspoken


Sources: diversified media