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Dubai: Langauge reform proposals for primary education in Algeria have touched off a firestorm of protest, highlighting deep sensitivities about language and identity half a century after independence from France.

During a discussion earlier this month on education reform, Algerian Education Minister Nouria Bengherbrit proposed that children should be taught in colloquial Algerian Arabic during the first two years of primary school.

She argued that a gradual introduction of Arabic to children would be more beneficial for their understanding. Bombarding children with a language they do not speak at home disrupts their education, she argued.

The debate sparked in Algeria is however only the latest in the Arab world on the role of Standard Arabic. A move towards colloquialism, while small, is a rising phenomenon in the region.

The Arabic learned by native speakers at school can be vastly different that which is spoken at home. Standard Arabic, universal across the Arab world, is the language of official communication, literature and news, while each Arab country has one or more dialect that is spoken at home and in casual conversation.

Colloquial dialects are however slowly making their way to the mainstream in some Arab countries, sparking a raging debate as to whether a taboo is being broken at the expense of a Standard Arabic language that is seen as a symbol of Arab unity and an essential means of communication between the various countries of the region.

In Algeria, Benghebrit’s proposals have drawn accusations from nationalists and Islamists alike that she is dishonouring the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Algerians who lost their lives fighting for independence from collonial power France, and “betraying the cause they fought for”. Islamist lawmakers of the Green Alliance even demanded her immediate dismissal. They have rounded on Benghebrit’s French education - she studied sociology in Paris - and accused her of wanting to return Algeria to the colonial era when they say dialect was encouraged in a bid to undermine Arab nationalism.

The minister has the backing of Algeria’s chief inspector for teaching methods, Farid Benramdane.

“The child must not be subjected to any shock in discovering that the language of school is not that of the home,” he said.

Algeria’s case is however not the first time that an attempt to institutionalise colloquial Arabic has been made. Renowned Lebanese poet Saeed Aql is perhaps the most prominent and even controversial proponent of a move away from Standard Arabic. A Lebanese nationalist, writer and language reformer, he designed a Latin based “Lebanese” alphabet and also published a newspaper called ‘Lebnaan’ in the 1970s, which was written in colloquial Lebanese.

In Egypt, a wave of novelists and writers are increasingly using colloquial or ‘aammiyya’ (slang) in their writings. For example, Ahmad Alaidy, a popular novelist among the young generation, is known for using colloquial language in his writings. Although his book ‘Being Abbas Al Abd’ has gained popularity for artistically merging both colloquial and formal Arabic, he has been criticised by known writers for intellectual impoverishment.

As more writers from the Arab world have been using colloquial Arabic in literary works, the fate of Standard Arabic is being questioned.

Most young Arabs who spoke to Gulf News explained that the use of colloquial Arabic should not go beyond conversations, insisting that using informal language in literary works not only confines the writer to his or her own country, but also destroys this crucial commonality between Arabs.

“We are not the ones who came up with the language. Hence we cannot ‘embrace the change’” said 22-year old Mayyasa Mukdad, an Iraqi student studying in the University of Washington. “We should work to preserve the language. Not using formal Arabic does not justify abusing it” she said.

Dr Sayed Al Bahrawi, Arabic language professor at Cairo University, expressed concerns about the danger the new system poses on formal Arabic. Yet, he proposed that the only way to tackle this issue is to establish an education system that combines both colloquial and formal Arabic.

“Using colloquial language in writing is a wrong approach in the first place,” said Dr Al Bahrawi. “The most efficient way is to establish a middle ground between both formal and colloquial Arabic.”

Al Bahrawi said that it is a rising phenomenon and establishing a middle ground is absolutely necessary to save the language. He urged that there is no going back and this trend will continue to rise among young writers. “What we could do is establish ways to preserve the language,” Dr Al Bahrawi said.

Dr May Zaki, professor of linguistics at the American of Sharjah, linked this phenomenon to nationalism in individual Arab countries. She said that the calls for eliminating standard Arabic in favour of colloquial are not new. But what is new is that these calls come at a time when many of the Arab countries are facing the worst political, economic and social crises.

“These calls spring from nationalistic tendencies which have been and will always be inseparable from the political situation in Arab countries” Dr Mai Zaki said.

She also mentioned the effect of social media on Arabic, where there are no guidelines for language use. As young generations live their lives online, the environment is inviting the use of colloquialism and new internet ‘lingo’. She argued however that this does not pose a threat to Arabs’ collective culture and identity.

Tarek Taji, a 23-year old graduate from the American University of Sharjah also played down the effect of colloquialism on Standard Arabic.

“Decades ago, there was a strong movement towards this idea. Yet it failed miserably due the lack of grammatical rules for colloquial Arabic. Hence, I don’t think it poses a threat” said Taji.

In Lebanon, where there is a small but vocal movement towards colloquialism, Joseph Hashem, a 25-year old graduate from the American University of Beirut, said “I like the Lebanese dialect and I’m sure everyone likes theirs... But nationalism can be expressed in other ways that don’t endanger language. Arabic is a rich language that unifies millions of Arabs. Hence, we should go in parallel rather than deviating from formal Arabic” he added.

- with inputs from AFP

- Nourhan Maher is an intern at Gulf News