DARIJA AS CULTURAL MEDIUM.

Lameen at Jabal al-Lughat has a thoughtful post on Moroccan linguistic and educational policy. He starts by linking to a brief MoorishGirl post on the subject (“I’m fully in favor of using Darija, because of the huge impact it would have on the creation of a reading culture”) and expands on it:

Developing a literature of sorts in Darja would allow kids to get into the habit of reading way earlier. A fair number of kids in the West are reading by the age of three; for an Algerian or Moroccan kid to even understand much of the language his/her books are written in at that age would be unheard of. With Darja literature for them to use, they could start reading before they ever started school; it might even lead to them acquiring literary Arabic faster. Moreover, an oral literary tradition already exists, best exemplified by the traditions of melhoun poetry and chaabi lyrics; the language used in these is recognizably a literary register, and all that would be needed would be to write it. My puristic instincts would also rejoice in a move with the potential to stem the tragic loss of inherited vocabulary, and overuse of French, now afflicting Darja.

If you’re at all interested in the situation of minority languages, read the whole thing. (More on Darija here.)

Comments

  1. michael farris says:

    Is Darija really a _minority_ language in NAfrica? I know it doesn’t get much love from the literati and has low status, but I thought it was actually the spoken language of the majority (or at least a plurality) of the population.

  2. Good point. I picked the adjective rather thoughtlessly; I don’t really know what the demographics are.

  3. Yes – Darja is the language of an overwhelming majority in Libya and Tunisia, a large majority in Algeria, and a relatively small majority in Morocco. Not sure offhand whether Mauritania’s Hassaniyya dialect counts as the same language or not – it’s not like I’ve ever heard it spoken.

  4. Siganus Sutor says:

    While it is certainly laudable to teach how to read & write in a language children can easily understand, attention must also be given to what will be more useful to them in the long run. Is it better to have a relatively effortless teaching in the beginning and a potentially higher literacy rate in a regional language or, on the contrary, a start which is more arduous but which will give people fluency in a wider means of communication? It seems that there is no clear-cut answer: while linguists and ethnologists may prefer the first option (say to preserve linguistic and cultural diversity), parents who think about their children’s future and young persons who think about their career may prefer the second, even if they remain attached to their mother tongue.
    In Seychelles — a former British colony where a French-based creole is the most widely spoken language —, creolisation of teaching and of all state-related matters has been pushed, mainly for ideological reasons. Isn’t it somehow nonsense, when you would already be more or less able to cope with English and French, to lock yourself within a language which has no real literature and which is used on tiny islands inhabited by 70 000 people only?

  5. michael farris says:

    “While it is certainly laudable to teach how to read & write in a language children can easily understand, attention must also be given to what will be more useful to them in the long run.”
    I don’t think there’s any inherent conflict between the two approaches.

  6. Yes, nobody’s saying children should be taught only in Darja; as the excerpt I quoted said, “it might even lead to them acquiring literary Arabic faster.”

  7. I certainly wouldn’t endorse Darja-only education, or even primarily Darja-based education, for precisely the reasons Siganus outlines. What I am suggesting is simply taking out a little time in first grade to teach people how to read Darja – a very natural way to introduce the Arabic alphabet to small children who don’t understand Fusha yet – and producing some stuff for them (and others) to read. This would substantially decrease the age at which it is possible to learn to read at a minimal cost, and (as far as I can see) would not compromise the undoubted priority of learning literary Arabic at school.
    Not that Darja is a particularly minor language – it has more speakers than Italian, for example.

  8. Siganus Sutor says:

    > Michael Farris & Language Hat
    Fearing to be too long, I had erased this last paragraph from my previous comment:
    “But it remains true that it is not easy for children to be taught in a language they don’t really understand, at least in the beginning. It looks like a hard-to-solve dilemma, but starting with a mixed approach may be a solution.”
    I agree with you that there shouldn’t be a conflict as the final aim is to have a better comprehension. But there could be a dilemma nonetheless: parents are not always happy that their children are taught in a “minor” language — even if it’s the one they use most —, that is a less prestigious one than what is “available on the market”. They sometimes see those bringing forward such propositions as people who themselves have succeeded while using the well-considered language and who now want to give others what could be regarded as a “downgraded” education. They may like the idea of a teaching that is closer to their children’s abilities and at the same time doubt it would be the best education which can be given to them. This type of reaction has been seen in other places (for instance between proponents of written Creole at school and those who wanted their kids to learn English and French instead) and the question has generated a lot of heated debates.
    I don’t know to what extent dialectal Arabic and standard Arabic differ from each other, but can’t it be confusing for a six or seven year old who has started reading and writing in Darija for say two years to swap to literary Arabic? There shouldn’t be restrictions in using the vernacular language, when needed, to explain things, i.e. while speaking , so the teacher can be properly understood. But when it comes to reading and writing, won’t such a dual introduction create some potential side effects? (I don’t have the answer, I’m just wondering.)

  9. “can’t it be confusing for a six or seven year old who has started reading and writing in Darija for say two years to swap to literary Arabic?” – good question. It may well be. But I do know it can be confusing to get to school and start reading and writing in a language significantly different from what one speaks at home… Ultimately, only empirical tests can determine which strategy is more effective.

  10. Lameen, why don’t you write a Darja children’s book? It sounds like there might be a huge market for it.

  11. michael farris says:

    I second the children’s books (more than one!) idea.
    Quite a few years ago I attended a presentation by a linguist working with an English-based creole in the Caribbean. Among other things he’d created a practical orthography and developed some reading materials and recorded children reading them.
    He played one particularly telling example A girl of about ten reading a story (IIRC the encounter of a girl her age and an angry goat). She began in that typical way children do when having to read something that they don’t identify with and aren’t interested in. Then … after about five sentences something clicked and she realized in the middle of a sentence that this wasn’t in that school English but in _her_ language and it made perfect sense. You could hear the excitement in her voice as she changed from bored parrot to active reader (including playing with the text).
    Beyond questions of practicality and facilitation in acquiring a prestige variety, I think that first language/dialect literacy is fully worthwhile in and of itself.

  12. Siganus Sutor says:

    Michael Farris: « after about five sentences something clicked and she realized in the middle of a sentence that this wasn’t in that school English but in _her_ language »
    You may be right, but perhaps here I could bore people with my own experience: being from a country that considers itself to be more or less the navel of the world, “Morisyen” — the French-based Creole spoken in Mauritius — is one of the two languages that could be considered mine. (I’m afraid the other one is not English…) And even though speaking it isn’t usually a problem (when sober), reading it is quite another thing. In fact, like most people I would dare think, I nearly have to spell it aloud to get the meaning out.
    This problem probably lies in the fact that it has never really been a written language. The Catholic Church has translated the Bible and prayers in Creole. For that matter it used a writing that wasn’t very far from French. The other body to regularly use it in a written form is a labour union, Ledikasyon pu Travayer — Education for Workers —, and this in a way that was supposed to be purely phonetic. But it produced texts riddled with -w, -z, -k and -y which were barely decipherable for the outsiders, i.e. for more than 99% of the population. These attempts were quite limited however. There has recently been an effort to agree on a way to write the island’s main language, but “Grafi Larmoni” still hasn’t produced a really harmonious agreement amongst people. Those who sometimes write things in Creole do it the way they like. And the Creole-based SMS pidgin often used by young ones on their mobile phone probably won’t help to formalise any writing.
    So, beside the fact that you have a tongue that is generally not considered good enough for academic teaching, how can people get used to reading and writing in this language when there isn’t a proper way for it to be written?

  13. Siganus, the problem in your case is not with the theory but with the practice. 1) The orthography was apparently ill chosen; that’s too bad, but not relevant for other cases, like Darja. 2) Of course you have a hard time reading it, since you didn’t learn it as a kid! That’s the whole point; if kids are exposed to a written version of their spoken language at an early age, it will be natural to them, and some of them will continue to write in it and eventually produce a body of actual literature, while taking nothing away from the high-culture language of the country.

  14. Siganus Sutor says:

    Language Hat, far from me the intention to enact any universal law whatsoever. It was just an example which I thought could be paralleled with Darja.
    You are right in saying that practising it at a young age in the written form would have helped. But no pupil has done it so far. Moreover, the Creole lexicon being quite close to French — it somehow looks like “deformed” French words —, I suspect it may induce some errors while writing the latter. One can wonder if the same trap couldn’t exist between dialectal and standard Arabic. (Maybe Lameen could give his opinion here.)
    I’ve read somewhere that you master French. Therefore it may be fun for you to try to read this appeal made by the aforementioned union for the use of written Creole in education. (It took me a while to go through the article…)
    Things are already confusing when two languages commonly spoken in one place — and very often by the same person in the same conversation — are closely related to each other. For instance, while in French you have a distinction between he and she (“il” and “elle”), in Creole you have just “li” for both genders and you can hear people saying “il” while speaking of a woman. But when it comes to writing, I think there may be an even higher risk of getting mixed-up.
    But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to automatically discard any tentative move to bring the “scribe’s secret” closer to what children can understand. We just have to be aware of the potential difficulties.

  15. Siganus Sutor says:

    Language Hat, far from me the intention to enact any universal law whatsoever. It was just an example which I thought could be paralleled with Darja.
    You are right in saying that practising it at a young age in the written form would have helped. But no pupil has done it so far. Moreover, the Creole lexicon being quite close to French — it somehow looks like “deformed” French words —, I suspect it may induce some errors while writing the latter. One can wonder if the same trap couldn’t exist between dialectal and standard Arabic. (Maybe Lameen could give his opinion here.)
    I’ve read somewhere that you master French. Therefore it may be fun for you to try to read this appeal made by the aforementioned union for the use of written Creole in education. (It took me a while to go through the article…)
    Things are already confusing when two languages commonly spoken in one place — and very often by the same person in the same conversation — are closely related to each other. For instance, while in French you have a distinction between he and she (“il” and “elle”), in Creole you have just “li” for both genders and you can hear people saying “il” while speaking of a woman. But when it comes to writing, I think there may be an even higher risk of getting mixed-up.
    But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to automatically discard any tentative move to bring the “scribe’s secret” closer to what children can understand. We just have to be aware of the potential difficulties.

  16. Siganus Sutor says:

    Sorry, something went wrong with the HTML in the first post. It should be erased…

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