Three Reasons Why North Africans Often Speak French to Each Other (Instead of Arabic)

Outsiders are often surprised to hear North Africans from the Maghreb speaking to each other in French, rather than in Arabic.  There are several reasons for this.

One reason, explained to me by native-speakers,  is that among the educated, French is considered a higher-class language than the local varieties of Arabic.  In some cases, people want to demonstrate to others, by speaking French, that they themselves are well-educated and of a high-class.

French language

This situation came about because most uneducated speakers do not understand Modern Standard Arabic (also known as Classical Arabic).     Therefore, the local dialects of Arabic are reserved for speaking down to the lower classes (maids, guardians, storekeepers, or casual conversations).

Another reason, explained to me by native-speakers, is that local varieties of Arabic tend to be quite poor in vocabulary when compared with French.  For example, I have often heard children who speak English in North Africa make a statement such as, “My foot hurts.”   What they mean is their knee hurts, or their upper leg hurts.  The reason they are using the word “foot” in English is that they are thinking in the local variety of Arabic and translating into English.  In the local Arabic dialect, anything below the hip is called “foot.”   This is only one example of how the local Arabic is extremely imprecise in terms of vocabulary and communication.

Precise words DO exist in Classical Arabic (the version of Arabic used in the Koran, in print, and on television newscasts).  However, according to native speakers, if someone were to know the precise words and use them, those words are not generally known in the North African region.  Therefore, the Classical Arabic tends to be less useful than French (in general conversation)  in the Maghreb regions of North Africa.

Koran Verses, Coran Verses, Classical Arabic

Classical Arabic

A third reason, also explained to me by native speakers, why two people from the Arabic countries of the Maghreb might be speaking in French is that their original relationship actually developed in French.  Many times people from North America are not aware that our relationships with people actually develop in a language.  Change the language between friends or family, and you actually change the relationship.

When I first moved to the region, I had heard that many in the upper classes often speak French to each other, but I didn’t really believe it.  One day I went to a party, and I heard the husband and wife speaking together in French, even though they were North African.  I asked about it politely, and they told me that they had both met as students while attending the same French school.  Therefore, their relationship developed in French, and French then became their family language.

–Lynne Diligent


10 Responses to “Three Reasons Why North Africans Often Speak French to Each Other (Instead of Arabic)”

  1. sdesportes Says:

    This reminds me of the historical usage of French by Russians for the reasons of seeing oneself as being more cultured, sophisticated and educated as it reflected the relationship between the two countries. Not sure how it is today in regards to its prevalence among the classes.
    Curious to see what was ‘out there’ on the subject:


    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      I had not heard of this, but I found your comment quite interesting. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, many North African went to study in Russia (engineering, pharmacology, etc.) I always wondered how they managed to get along–apparently they spend a year studying Russian there before starting other studies. But what is also interesting is that now they have come back with many Russian wives to North Africa. Perhaps their language transition is eased if French is indeed still taught in Russia. I do find that most of the Russian women I’ve met do speak French, although I am under the impression that most of them have learned it recently.


  2. Hannibal de Carthage Says:

    Today, North Africans, in general, tend to learn and speak English.
    This is because of the racial issue in France, and because many North Africans want to learn English in order to emigrate to Australia or Canada.

    English learning is more and more important because of business, communication, computer engineering and scientific research, especially among the young people.


  3. Rory Says:

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  4. Rifia Says:

    There are other reasons. For me (I’m moroccan) it’s more because I don’t speak arabic (none of the dialects). I’m native of morocco so I speak Tamazight as my first language so communicating with moroccan arabs in french is the only way for berbers to get by who don’t speak arabic.


  5. john Says:

    nice job in explaining this ❤


  6. JuniorXEastNY Says:

    This article reminds me of something my Political Theory Professor (who was also a linguist) once said in class: The difference between a “Language” and a “Dialect” is that a Language has an army, navy, special forces and nuclear missiles. Once a Dialect acquires these things, it too becomes a Language.


  7. How to Use French to Conquer Half a Continent? - GFluence Says:

    […] think cultural wise. In Northern African countries Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria French is the first language among the upper class and only second among the lower classes. In French speaking countries in North Africa the dominant […]

    Liked by 1 person

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