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In which language do Algerians debate future?

Algeria is still struggling to define itself 26 years after gaining independence. ``Our future lies in asserting our identity as part of the Maghreb [North Africa] but with close ties to Europe,'' one Algerian writer says. ``This also means France,'' Algeria's former colonial ruler.

But the ruling party since independence, the National Liberation Front (FLN), has steadfastly pursued a policy to eradicate the country's colonial heritage.

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Memories are still vivid in Algeria of eight years of brutal war against the French that claimed 1 million Algerian lives and caused the bitter departure of 1 million pieds noirs (black feet), as the settlers were known. Considerable antagonism toward France remains.

Thus, the socialist FLN regime has gone out of its way to avoid policies that might indicate a special relationship with France.

But with over 800,000 Algerian expatriates living ``over there,'' as France is referred to locally, the government's attitude does not seem to be shared by many of its citizens.

A number express regret that, after independence, both sides did not work out a relationship that would have encouraged more French settlers to stay on after the colonial regime had left. Some say such an arrangement could have helped prevent the crippling economic downturn the country now faces.

For the FLN, only complete renunciation of ties to France and a policy of total Arabization will bring Algeria its own national identity. A key - and hotly contested - point of its Arabization plan is to replace the still widely used French language with the official tongue, Arabic.

While many Algerians consider it politically necessary to adopt Arabic as the national language, most admit it is an expensive proposition.

According to diplomats, Algeria has neither qualified instructors of Arabic, nor sufficient books and infrastructure to rely on Arabic alone, whether in education, commerce, or government. So such teachers and supplies must be imported - either from Syria, Egypt, or other Arab-speaking countries.

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And many foresee more than economic difficulties with the government's pro-Arabic stance:

The switch from French to Arabic in the schools has played havoc with the educational system. The result, some say, is that many young Algerians are now unable to speak either Arabic or French properly.

``The government has managed to create a whole new generation of linguistic illiterates,'' a West European diplomat comments. ``While countries such as Kuwait are spending millions to a adopt a second semiofficial language [English], Algeria is spending millions to destroy one.''

The changeover to Arabic particularly causes difficulties at the high school or university level. Teachers often have to translate into Arabic directly from French texts in such classes as science, philosophy, or medicine.

Diplomats warn that radical Arabization could provoke ethnic and class division. Algeria's non-Arab minority, the Berber tribes - notably the Kabyles, Chaouias, and Touaregs, who are believed to represent over a quarter of the country's 23 million inhabitants - say they resent the FLN's apparent intention of imposing Arabic to the detriment of tribal languages.

Many warn that Algeria faces the danger of creating an even more elitist ruling class, which has the means to pay for a better - French-oriented - education. Already many parents, including FLN party members, have bundled off their children to French-language schools in Tunisia, Morocco, and Europe.

Diplomats and many Algerians point out that the country's growing ``linguistic illiteracy'' is bound to cause severe problems in the future. As it is, government ministries still find it necessary to conduct much of their business in French. Official documents, including the recent referendum for a revised constitution, are composed in French and then translated.

Many Algerians note with amusement that the new official Arabic posters and traffic signs are often grammatically wrong.

Most educated Algerians speak French as readily as their Arabic patois - a colloquial idiom of Arabic and French which often changes in mid-sentence. And few expect any change in such French-leanings in the near future.

With the possibility of significant political and economic reforms in the months ahead, some Algerians believe that a critical and open debate on the language issue might permit a more natural form of Arabization alongside French, Berber, and other languages.

``In any case, it is a matter for Algerians to decide themselves but we need the freedom to do so,'' says a film producer recently returned from self-imposed exile in France.

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