When children start school in an industrialized country, their native language is for the most part the one used by the teachers. Conversely, in many developing countries, the former colonial languages have been proclaimed languages of instruction within the classroom at the expense of native indigenous languages. A third scenario is something in-between: The language used at school is related to the home language but is a significantly different variety. This is the case in the Arabic-speaking world where the native dialects are used at home and on the street while Modern Standard Arabic is used in education and in other formal domains. In the latter two cases, the stakes are higher for the students from the very onset of their learning journey: They must acquire a second linguistic system and develop literacy skills, both at the same time.
In North Africa, students acquire their native Arabic dialects at home before starting school. Some students also acquire Berber in the areas where it’s still transmitted naturally. Since the Arabic vernaculars aren’t standardized or officially recognized by the state, they’re not taught at schools and there aren’t any textbooks or dictionaries aimed at native speakers. As a result, students must develop literacy in Modern Standard Arabic, a language that diverges to a significant extent from the native vernaculars. There are different words that refer to the same things and even aspects of the grammar are different. For example, while Tunisian Arabic has seven subject pronouns (eight in some varieties), Modern Standard Arabic has twelve, including the dual pronouns that don’t exist in vernacular Arabic. As a result, Tunisian students have to make a conscious effort not only to develop literacy in the standard variety of Arabic, but also to learn how to speak it extemporaneously in order to communicate successfully in the classroom.
In addition to Modern Standard Arabic, schools in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco introduce French as a second language, usually in elementary school. In Tunisia, the instruction of French starts around the age of eight, before French becomes a language of instruction for many subjects starting in middle school.
Both in the educational system and on the local job market, a divide exists between students who pursue their studies primarily in Modern Standard Arabic and those who do so in French. STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), including computer science, is delivered in French in Tunisian high schools. Students who choose tracks that focus more on these subjects will develop higher levels of proficiency in French than students who choose the humanities stream, which has more hours of instruction in Modern Standard Arabic. The result of this added exposure to either language creates a gap in levels of proficiency that stratifies the Tunisian population according to their comfort using Modern Standard Arabic and/ or French. This has implications for social mobility, as both languages have different and competing symbolic, cultural, and material capitals in the Tunisian linguistic market.
Proficiency in French is often used as a proxy metric for educational attainment, professional competence, and overall higher socioeconomic status. Modern Standard Arabic on the other hand is closely associated with the national religious and cultural heritage and pan-Arab ideologies. With this rivalry between Modern Standard Arabic and French in the background, the local Arabic vernacular, Tunisian Arabic, is gradually acquiring more capital and starting to be used by private citizens and public authorities alike on multiplatform media. This is more so since the 2011 Revolution. Additionally, the turn of the century has brought with it an increased presence of English as a global language. Thanks to the vast amounts of materials available for the acquisition of English, increasing numbers of Tunisians are developing higher levels of proficiency in this language and employing it.
While there are public discussions about which languages to use at school, conflicting ideologies make it hard for real change to happen. For the time being, it appears that North African students will continue to develop initial literacy in Modern Standard Arabic and use French in many STEM subjects throughout their educational trajectory. This affects school attainment for many school children who may fall behind, not necessarily because the subject matter is challenging, just because they aren’t always fully comfortable with the language of instruction.
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