Tuesday, April 12, 2022


by Emily Swisher 

Emily Swisher is a third-year doctoral student in French Studies at the University of Illinois. Emily hopes to become a professor of French and incorporate research from her subfields of Translation/Interpretation and European Union Studies into her professional work. She wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in Fall 2021.

The Arabic language has an undeniably strong hold in France. It is currently the second-most spoken language in the country with approximately four million locutors, far surpassing the combined number of speakers of France’s 25+ regional languages. Historically opposed to education initiatives in any language aside from the recognized national standard, France is now starting to reevaluate its policies toward the instruction of minority languages, and Arabic in particular. With a growing population of Arabic speakers on the mainland, the impetus for change seems to follow the adage, if you can’t beat them, join them. For France, talk of Arabic instruction increasingly favors introduction of the language into schools from an early age, in order to make sure that its dissemination follows the Ministry of Education’s strict teaching guidelines.

In order to understand the importance of Arabic in France, it is necessary to take a brief dive into France’s colonial past. Without mentioning all of its territorial holdings, France claimed important colonial outposts in much of Northern Africa until the latter half of the 20th century, including Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. Upon independence, many of the inhabitants of these former colonies resettled in France, effectively creating a surge in the number of Arabic speakers there (See Image 1 for a color-coded map of the different varieties of Arabic spoken in North Africa and the Middle East). Indeed, the influence of Arabic in France is such that, while not a regional language, Maghrebi Arabic (the version of the language spoken in the aforementioned countries of Northern Africa)[1] has been recognized as a langue de la France since 1999 (Cerquiglini) [2]. However, despite its status as the second-most spoken language in France, Maghrebi Arabic is decidedly unpopular as a school subject for new language learners. The Economist notes that, “An estimated five million French citizens have family roots in the Arab world, mainly in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Yet the teaching of the language in schools is regarded in many quarters as suspect, if not dangerous. A mere 13,000 French pupils study Arabic – just 0.2% of all secondary-school students who take a second language” (https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/09/20/teaching-arabic-in-france). According to many reports, it is now in the best interest of the country to change that.

Image 1: Arabic Dialects (source : https://en-academic.com/pictures/enwiki/65/Arab_World-Large.PNG)  

The areas designated by shades of blue are considered the Maghrebi dialects.

Recently, there has been an uptick in support for foreign language education initiatives concerning both France’s regional and other minority languages. Regarding Arabic, French President Emmanuel Macron stated in 2020 that young language learners need to have the opportunity to study Arabic as part of a “policy of recognition” (cited in SEE News, https://see.news/teaching-arabic-in-french-schools-raises-controversy/). Recognition is certainly the first step in creating a more far-reaching language policy, and in the case of Arabic, this means an overhaul of how the language is taught within France. As former education and culture minister Jack Lang puts it, Arabic suffers from an “image problem” because it is “afflicted by a lack of public awareness of its place in national and international history” (The National News, https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/europe/ex-minister-on-a-mission-to-put-arabic-into-french-schools-and-hearts-1.987811).

So, how can all of this change? To begin with, it might be time for France to rethink its traditional censure of all “other” – i.e. non-French – languages in the classroom. This notion has been at the center of a very heated debate for the past several years, with opponents from either side of the political spectrum having very strong opinions on the subject. For those that favor the introduction of Arabic classes into the French educational system, the goal would be to offer quality language courses by qualified instructors in an environment governed by the Ministry of Education. This would not only ensure excellence of instruction but would also serve to moderate content according to the Ministry’s standards. For many, Arabic and religious extremism are conflated, and so implementing a state-monitored, secular language program presents itself as an appealing solution to instruction of the language. Interestingly, the addition of these classes is sought especially at the primary and secondary levels since teaching of Arabic at the university level is thought to be unproblematic and uncontroversial – indeed, at Sciences Po (an internationally renowned university in Paris) there are 37 Arabic instructors as compared with 180 Arabic teachers across all of France’s public schools combined (New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/05/world/europe/france-arabic-public-schools-mosques.html). 

Image 2: Coexist rally in Rennes, France 

(source: https://www.dw.com/en/emmanuel-macrons-plans-to-protect-french-values-alienate-muslims/a-55090098)

On the other side of the debate regarding Arabic education, there are those that feel that including the language in primary and secondary school curricula is tantamount to Islamizing French youth, who should, according to these opponents, be indoctrinated with French (only) ideas of identity and linguistic belonging. According to Robert Ménard, the far-right mayor of Béziers, inclusion of Arabic in the classroom would announce “the birth of another nation right in the heart of France” (Economist, https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/09/20/teaching-arabic-in-france).

Image 3: March against Islamophobia in Paris, France 

(source: https://www.dw.com/en/france-thousands-demonstrate-against-islamophobia/a-51194917)

In spite of fears that Arabic education might somehow radicalize younger generations and alter something fundamental about French identity, there is nonetheless a slow march toward change. Arabic is an undeniable part of French society, and its instruction is moving more and more into the secular realm in state-sanctioned educational networks. Though not a historically recognized language of France, Arabic is nonetheless integrally tied to France’s past, present, and future. In the words of Jack Lang, “what better way to transmit elements of culture than through learning the language” (cited in SEE News, https://see.news/teaching-arabic-in-french-schools-raises-controversy/)? Indeed, in the spirit of reconciliation and in recognition of the interwoven cultural network between France and the Maghreb, the most logical path forward would be through a joining of forces and a celebration of the possibilities of a growing multilingual French/Arabic population. 

[1] For more information on the Maghrebi dialect of Arabic, see here: https://pangeanic.hk/knowledge_centre/arabic-dialects-a-close-look-at-north-african-arabic/#.

[2] Cerquiglini Bernard : (1999) Les Langues de la France, Rapport aux ministres de l’Education nationale et de la Culture, www.dglf.culture.gouv.fr.


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