What Is The Most Common Language Spoken In Algeria? (The Algerian Language Situation)

avatarMille Larsen
8 mins read

Below is an article, written by an un-named Algerian. While the ideas expressed are sometimes subjective, I agree with them very much, and they are representative of a point of view that many Algerians share.

The Algerian language situation isn't as clear-cut and easily definable as it's the case with other countries. Arabic is the official and national language despite it being spoken by none. Tamazight, the ancestral language, has been ignored by the administration since very recently, and neither French, which many Algerians speak throughout their lives, and Dardja which is the true mother-tongue along with Tamazight of the country, are recognized.

Some interesting facts about Algeria And Its Languages

Algeria is a Mediterranean and North African country with a surface area of 2 381 741 square kilometers making it the biggest country in Africa in terms of size. The number of inhabitants has reached 43,9 million in the first month of 2020. Given the size of the population and the country, it is more likely that there are several languages or at least several dialects spoken by the local population.

Algeria, unlike some of its neighbours namely Morocco and Tunisia to name a few, is not very well known despite the size of the country and its placement in the middle of the Mediterranean.

This lack of information and publicity is due to many reasons which have resulted in many rumors and assumptions. People generally associate Algeria with the Middle East and the Arab world and therefore make the assumption that the Algerian people’s mother tongue is Arabic.

This is particularly misleading when we examine the articles that determine the official language of Algeria in the constitution. The 3rd article of the Algerian constitution states that Arabic is the official and national language.

A 4th article has been added only in 2016 -after a very long political struggle- stating that Tamazight, also known as the Berber language, (we will explore this in further detail in another article) is also an official and national language.

What Is The Difference Between A National And Official Language?

An official language is a language used in official documents and governmental organizations and public institutions. It is also the business language used in workplaces and it is the main language used in the media. On the other hand, a national language is spoken throughout the whole country by all citizens or regionally in their daily lives.

Is Arabic The Most Common Spoken Language In Algeria?

The particularity of Algeria is that the official narrative doesn’t necessarily fit the reality and this doesn’t apply only to languages but that’s another heavy subject. In other words, language and identity among other things are quite political in Algeria.

There is a significant lack of national and international statistics about Algeria including about languages. However, according to some approximate statistics and based on my experience as an Algerian, most of Algerians speak Dardja as a first language or mother tongue and nearly half of Algerians speak a dialect of Tamazight.

Read also: 353 Words And Phrases In Dardja (with audio)

Many Algerians who speak Tamazight as a first language are perfectly bilingual in Dardja and French, and there is a significant number of Algerians who are perfectly bilingual in Dardja and French.

Whereas Standard Arabic, as described in the constitution, is not spoken at all in Algeria, except in the media, and is used in official documents.

It is important to note that Dardja is considered by the population and many people as an Arabic dialect but this is debated by many Algerians including linguists. That’s why I have written another article where I dissect Dardja, the most common language in Algeria.

Is Dardja an Arabic dialect or a language in its own right? Is Dardja similar to other languages? Click HERE to know more about Dardja.

What Is The Linguistic Reality In Algeria?

Apart from the argument that Dardja is, at least, some form of an Arabic dialect, it is quite different from the Arabic mentioned in the constitution which is the Standard Arabic language also known as “Fus7a”.

The French language is at least a second language for many Algerians, especially in big cities. Algeria is said to be the second Francophone country in the world after France. However, French is not officially recognized whatsoever, although it is spoken on a daily basis by many Algerians and it heavily influenced Dardja.

French is the language of studies for many fields especially science and technology-related fields and it is even used in public institutions and in official documents! (Despite not being official).

The Tamazight language has been recognized only in 2016 which means that before that, Arabic was the only official language in the Algerian constitution even though it is not used by the Algerian people as a mother tongue or in their daily lives.

Tamazight, on the other hand, is the original and first language of the country and even the region. It dates back to thousands of years which makes it one of the oldest languages still spoken to this day by millions of people! Having survived through major historical events, colonization, etc. makes it a linguistic miracle.

To this day, Dardja and French are not recognised by the government, despite Dardja being the most spoken language in Algeria and French which is considered as a first foreign language and a language of culture and science.

In comparison, Arabic is actually as foreign as French even though it’s not perceived this way by many Algerians due to their emotional rapport with languages. They associate Arabic with religion, the language of the Quran, and Arabic is even believed to be the official language of heaven!

French, on the other hand, is the language of colonizers. However, neither of these languages is mastered by the vast majority of Algerians despite them being taught from elementary school.

Consequences Of The Language Confusion

Being familiar with different languages has many advantages but it comes with its drawbacks. The fact that the Algerian languages are not officially being recognised and the very late recognition of the Tamazight language even though it’s only on paper, has created a significant identity crisis.

A language is not only a communication tool to express your ideas, emotions and feelings but it is an outcome of centuries and thousands of years of the societal and historical evolution of a community or population. It is a pivotal anthropological aspect that enables a given population to express their culture through art for instance. A language determines a mentality, a set of behaviours and values.

Think about bilinguals or polyglots for example. If you speak English, your thought process is conditioned by American or British culture (or an English-speaking culture). You embody this culture and it influences your behaviour. If you switch to the French language, for instance, it gives you another perspective. You adopt another thought process from a cultural perspective, the cultural references are different.

The same goes for Arabic and Algerian (Dardja) or Tamazight. Each language holds different values specific to their cultural contexts. Each language evolves according to the social and historical evolution of a country which is very important to keep in mind when analyzing behavioral patterns within a society or culture from an anthropological point of view.

Being familiar with many languages, which is the case of Algerians, gives an individual the ability to learn any language easily (or more easily at least). That’s why Algerians can generally pronounce different sounds: Due to their familiarity with different languages.

However, this linguistic confusion and lack of official recognition have hindered the development of Algerian languages. The lack of support of local languages has created a significant lack of fluency of any language, really, because many people can generally speak several languages but they master none.

A reason for this might be that the foreign languages (French and Arabic) are used in a professional or religious context (for Arabic), and the spoken languages in Algeria (Dardja and Tamazight) are not developed or transcribed.

However, when Algerians express themselves in art they do it in their mother tongues (Dardja and Tamazight). These are the main languages of culture: music, poetry, movies, theatre, comedy, etc.

The bottom line is when you speak a language that is being repressed and you have been imposed a language that is not anthropologically rooted in society, it becomes counterproductive and even problematic causing school issues for kids and students and even an identity crisis which impacts social well-being and the national economy among other things.

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