English in Carthage; or, the "Tenth Crusade"

Mongi Bahloul, University of Sfax for the South, Tunisia

photo of Prof. Bahloul

No crashing of guns,
no booming of heavy seas against our frail ship,
no firm resolution in the face of death.

. . .

But instead an English classroom,
A hot African town
And the relative pronouns "who" and "whom".
(PCV, Tunisia: July 1966)


In this paper, I will try to investigate the relationship that exists between globalisation and English from a sociolinguistic perspective. Tunisia will be the focal point of my investigation. The discussion of the main issues will be carried out in four sections. The first section examines the strong tendency in Tunisia to depart from the principle of a state-controlled economy and initiate a new era of liberalism. This part also shows that the economic move entails a colossal development of information technologies as vehicles of a global reach. The second section concentrates on the socio-linguistic situation in Tunisia. The focus is on the mother tongues and their place in the 'linguistic market'. Furthermore, it presents a cross section of viewpoints on Arabization and Francophony. Their rivalry is seen as a potential threat to the national identity, local cultures, and the Tunisian willingness to tolerate. The third part displays some salient facts for the English language. It is a comparative analysis involving French. English is claimed to have crept into written and spoken French and to have made substantial gains in terms of the number and percentage of Tunisian students wishing to study it. The final section addresses the issue of English in Tunisia with special emphasis on the 'ambient' environment. The assumption is that a narrower perspective will provide a greater insight into the nature of the phenomenon under examination. The paper concludes with an attempt to explain the subtitle: "The Tenth Crusade," and raise further questions as to the future role of English and its impact on Tunisian society and its life styles.


The empirical generalisations that I may make and the conclusions that I might reach as a result of this investigation are based on field studies and on a number of other works that have been conducted by outstanding researchers in Tunisian affairs. The method that I used relies on participative observation and the essential tool for that matter is the interview. Being a Tunisian Berber who at an early age migrated to the city because I could not survive in my rural area, I can claim to have gone through the main phases that have brought about the socio-cultural and economic changes in Tunisia over the last two decades. It is in a way a view from the inside which attempts to give a scientific explanation to a phenomenon that has been experienced and felt subjectively.

1.0. Tunisia and the Globalization Syndrome

Tunisia has in recent times undergone radical and unprecedented transformations in areas such as the world trade, privatisation and the liberalisation of the laws relating to the export and import of goods and services.

1.1. A Boom in the Tourist Trade. A direct result of this general atmosphere of liberalism is the emergence of tourism as an important sector in the Tunisian economy. Tunisia has invested tremendous amounts of money to set up some of the most reliable tourist infrastructures in Africa. Waves and waves of tourists from the world over have in the last ten years or so chosen Tunisia for a holiday in the sun. The latest figures issued by the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism show that on average six million tourists visit the country each year. Without considering the negative side of tourism, one can safely assume that it enhances and stimulates the globalisation process and reinforces the concept that sees the world as a global village.

1.2. A Market-oriented Economy Tourism is just one feature of the transformational scenario that characterises Modern Tunisia and its economic direction at the present time. Without the slightest doubt, the general mood is in favour of openness and greater collaboration with the western world and its economic institutions. In practical terms, this can be seen in the gradual breaking down of some trade barriers between North and South. Along these lines, Tunisia has been nominated for partnership with the European Union. Again, the country attracts and is being attracted to, bilateral foreign investment relationships such as the recent negotiations with the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Japan. A close look at the Tunisia news reveals that Tunisia, for example, is elected to be a permanent or temporary headquarters for several Mediterranean and Middle Eastern organisations because of its political stability and geographical location. Similarly, it has hosted a significant number of world events that aim at bridging the gap between the industrialised nations and Third-World countries. It has also been the venue for international conferences on issues dealing with economic growth and the free circulation of goods and capitals across nations. The signing of the GATT agreement by Tunisia does not therefore come as a surprise; it must be seen as the logical outcome of all these liberalising moves that have shaped the Tunisian economic life all these years.

1.3. The 'Virus' of Information Technologies Building bridges and establishing links with the International Community can only be achieved via a reliable network of communication. This explains the nation's major concern about the transfer of information technology and its use for international communication purposes. In Tunisia, as in many other parts of the Globe, information technology, especially its software, has witnessed revolutionary development in recent years and the trend continues and accelerates in the future. World organisations and major research centres have inputted useful information and various data which may be accessed by the average Tunisian citizen, businessmen, students, researchers, and educators via the Internet and World Wide Web instantly and at a little cost. Such information technology can raise the level of intellectual curiosity and understanding of a person to a plateau that is worthy of being described as a 'truly global citizen'. Accepting globalisation and becoming a part of the global marketplace justifies and even necessitates knowledge of several languages.

2.0. The Tunisian Market of Linguistic Goods

Tunisia is famous for its Roman mosaics. It is also known for its linguistic mosaic. The landscape is extremely colourful. A significant number of language varieties coexist on Tunisia soil. There are national languages and foreign languages. The national languages consist mainly of Standard Arabic (SA), the official language, a cluster of Arabic dialects (AD), and the Berber language (B), which is also split into regional varieties. The foreign languages are French (F), Spanish (S), and Italian (I). These languages were introduced under the Protectorate system exercised in Tunisia by France and Italy from 1881 to 1956. To add further complexities to the kaleidoscope of languages, English has of late made its entry on the linguistic stage as a Brobdingnag in the land of Lilliputians.

2.1. Mother Tongues at Risk The presence of all these languages in the linguistic marketplace creates a sense of conflict and rivalry. In this competitive environment, the languages which seem to be most at risk are the mother tongues, namely the Berber language and to a certain extent Arabic as a dialect. Despite the important role they play in structuring the basic identity of an individual (Milner 1978), mother tongues in Tunisia are increasingly marginalised. To clarify this paradox, it may be useful to bring in a brief comparison between the situation of English and that of the Berber language.

On the one hand, the native speaker of English learns their mother tongue in the family circle. He/she then goes to school and there the informal learning process initiated at home will be enriched by the assimilation of grammar and lexical rules in a socio-linguistic context. It is therefore safe to maintain that the speaker of English bathes in the same linguistic sea from the cradle to the grave. He/she lives in a permanent state of linguistic security. On the other hand, the native speaker of Amazighe (the Berber language) goes through a totally different experience. He/she finds himself/herself in a situation of linguistic interaction that forces them to believe and admit that Amazighe is the weakest language in the linguistic market (Bourdieu 1982). In order to survive, this Berber subject has to acquire multilingual skills. Such skills will enable him/her to use Amazighe, the native tongue, only at home or with the closest members of the family, the odd dialects of Arabic on the streets, Standard Arabic when 'praying' on Friday or dealing with red tape and bureaucracy. Finally, at work the Berber citizen has to switch on to the French language or English as the mastery of a foreign language is mandatory in any respectable profession or occupation in large urban areas. In short, a speaker of Amazighe leads the life of a schizoglossarist with very little space left for his/her mother tongue. The speaker of an Arabic dialect faces a similar dilemma. His/her native tongue is to be stigmatised on the first day at school as linguistically inferior to classical Arabic, the language of the holy Koran. Salvation can only be found in the rejection of what is seen as the "vulgar" aspects of the maternal idioms and language patterns. It is therefore imperative that the mother tongue habits should soon fade away to give more room for the rigid norms and archaic idioms of Koran Arabic.

2.2. Arabic and French in a deadly race for linguistic supremacy The two major languages in Tunisia - Arabic and French - are in a state of flux which is considerably influencing the development of English, so far on the periphery of the language scene.

2.2.1. Arabization The use of Arabic is spreading and slowly taking over many of the functions formerly served by French. This is to a certain extent the result of Arabization which is seen by many intellectuals and socio-political organisations in Tunisia as a process of recovering cultural and national identity. In short, it is viewed as a sacred principle whose ultimate goal is to dislodge French from the key sectors such as education, health, administration, and vocational training. The leading exponents of Arabization are Arab nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists. According to these groups, French poses a grave threat to the future of Arabic in this part of North Africa. Similarly, the 'French' predominance in the civil service and business is a big blow to the national pride and sovereignty; most importantly, it is considered a slap in the face for those who defend the Islamic faith in this country. Equally significant is the belief that French corrupts the youths, not only in their linguistic competence but also in their moral and spiritual values. Finally, in the name of the historical, political and religious legitimacy of Arabic, the voices of Arabization urge the government to honour that legitimacy by giving full support and backing to the Arabic language in its Djihad (struggle) against French and other foreign tongues. In simpler terms, the champions of Arabization want the people in power to legislate in favour of an 'Arabic' monopoly so that it can corner the Tunisian market of linguistic goods.

2.2.2. Francophony All is not gloom and doom for French as a language. Indeed, other voices, larger in number and more articulate in speech, have spelt out their discontent with the monopolistic views and chauvinistic attitudes of the so-called Mujaheddin of the Arab cause. Those voices come from people who have nurtured Francophile feelings and thoughts. They maintain that Tunisia is the land of a multiculturalism and the crossroads of languages. The Tunisian society, they add, is de facto and de jure multicultural and multilingual (Berber, Arab, Turk, African, Jew, French, Italian, Spanish, etc.). Pluralism is an inherent feature of Tunisian life and as such it is a source of wealth and tolerance. More significantly, a pluralist state advocates openness, care for the other, and a genuine commitment to develop the basis of a civil society. These ideas find their best expression in the writings of several North African novelists and thinkers who have chosen French as a mode of communication. Khatibi (1993), for example, argues that French is the language of attraction (aimance in French), the language of love for most Francophone writers - a language that enables them to express his/her universe of aesthetic creation in the most artistic fashion. This strong conviction is certainly shared by other North African writers like Ben Jelloun, Bouraoui, Essid, Laabi or Serhane.

2.2.3. Comments It is clear that in the "language and power" game the Francophone discourse is less blatant and more 'nuanced' than that held by the Arabophone communities. In essence, however, both discourses aim for the supremacy of a single language in North Africa, on the one hand Arabic and on the other French. In each case, there have been attempts to favour and promote the desired language and its culture with very little respect for other cultural and linguistic forces into play.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Sociology Department at Sfax University, most Tunisians (67%), whether they are intellectuals or just ordinary citizens, refuse to lend their ears to partisan speeches or rhetoric. A significant number of respondents believe that they can identify the stories behind the partisan headlines. "Surely," says one 22-year-old student, " the majority of Tunisians will not be on the side of those who crow about Arabization simply because their outcry preaches withdrawal, exclusion, isolation and obscurantism in an age of globalisation and partnership". Another student affirms that "Tunisians will not fall into the trap of the Francophone rhetoricians for the simple reason that the French language is often associated with the former colonisers of their native land". Many other respondents realise that French is not as useful as it used to be; it is certainly losing ground internationally and showing a major handicap technologically.

If a technology transfer scheme is a top priority on the political agenda of this country, then betting on the French language for that matter will be a total fiasco, and ultimately a reported failure. English as an international language seems at present and in the Tunisian context a safer bet and an entry visa to that global village, as we shall see in the following section of this study.

3.0. Some Salient Facts for the English Language: A Comparative Analysis Involving French

The French language, which was formerly used extensively for communication within Tunisia, is having its role restricted to that of an international language (i.e., used for communication outside the country). This is to some extent the result of the controversial charges levelled by the Arabization militants against its excessive use, as discussed in the previous section. However, in this new role, French is now competing with English. Formerly, English in Tunisia was studied for no particular purpose other than that of being part of an educated person's intellectual and cultural baggage. Now its role as an important tool for global outreach is being reflected all over the country. More business is conducted with the anglophone world and with these countries like Japan and Thailand whose people do not share a common language but who are likely to operate in English.

Technology exchanges, particularly with the USA, highlight the need for English, and researchers are increasingly feeling the pressure to read English medium journals and periodicals to keep up with developments in their fields. Oftentimes, they feel that their research will not reach a wide enough audience unless it is written in English. Knowing this foreign language may therefore give the businessman or researcher an advantage in her/his work. There is also a less tangible psychological preference for English rather than French emerging. In the same vein one can perceive a general impression that pleads in favour of greater use of English by a greater number of people who feel competent to speak it.

3.1. French and English in search of Tunisian Students' Hearts The contest that opposes English to French can be seen through a number of indices: some are objective and quantifiable, others are subjective and impressionistic. Let us then consider the academic arena as a battlefield with the two major linguistic opponents face to face. The fight for linguistic leadership begins at the university. French and English as competitors try to be the linguistic commodity that students seek to acquire. In this respect, the number of students who register at the English and French departments will be an indicator of the demand for one language or the other.

3.2. An 'English' Surge at Schools and Universities Figures issued by the Ministry of Higher Education in Tunisia show that a greater number of students choose to major in English. Le Guide de l'Etudinat (the Student's Guide) for the academic year 2000-2001 indicates that the students who have opted for the study of foreign languages are classified as follows:

Academic Year Target Language Number of students
2000 - 2001 English 2960
2000 - 2001 French 2420
2000 - 2001 Spanish 0180

Figure 1

It appears from the sets of figures above that English attracts most language students in Tunisia and that this preference has been going on for some time, more precisely over the last fifteen years or so. 3.3. A Positive Attitude towards English The other index in favour of English is the positive attitude shown by pupils and students alike towards this language when viewed in comparison with French. The positive attitude towards English has been addressed at great length in a number of studies. The most recent ones (Payne 1983; Twyford and McCune 1984; Kennedy 1985; Bahloul and Seymour 1991; Daoud 1998; Walters 1998) highlight the growing appeal of English among younger Tunisians; they also signal the waning of French and its legacy following the sweeping changes that the country has undergone in recent years. This issue and other aspects of English in the Tunisian environment will be examined in the following section of this essay.

4.0. The Tenth Crusade (1987-2000): 'Anglifying' Carthage

In a recent article entitled "New Year Happy," Keith Walters (1998) presents a vivid picture of the 'English' flame in Modern Tunisia. He takes us outside the university walls to identify some symptoms of an 'English' epidemic that threatens to tear apart the entire linguistic fabric of Tunisian society. The languages most at risk in this hazardous area seem to be French and Standard Arabic. For the purpose of this paper, I will only focus on the section of the article that deals with 'English in the ambient environment'. More precisely, I will take a close look at his discussion of English in the broadcast media.

4.1. English in the Broadcast Media. According to Walters, English has made significant gains in the domains of radio/TV broadcasting and the written press -- domains that were traditionally and exclusively operated by French and Arabic. This major breakthrough, Walters explains, has led to the inclusion of daily programs in English at the International Service of Tunis Radio (Radio Tunis: Chaine Internationale) and an increasing presence of the English language in code-switched utterances at most state-controlled radio and TV channels across the country. Another aspect of the recent development of English in the broadcasting scene is illustrated by the growing popularity of English language music in national and local radio stations. Most songs have English lyrics. Younger Tunisians can easily recite the lyrics to these songs, but they can hardly understand the meaning of what they recite. Walters has, however, belittled the role of foreign broadcasting in propagating the English 'bug' within Tunisia. In this country, as in other parts of North Africa, sky television has invaded most homes. As a result, more and more programs using English as a medium of communication have become available to Tunisian viewers, allowing thus a greater exposure to the language. For instance BBC World Service and CNN were on every lip during the Gulf War and since then the two channels have earned their place in the Tunisian household and among news consumers.

4.2. English in the Written Press. As far as the written press is concerned, the 1990s have witnessed the emergence of two Tunisian newspapers in English: Tunisia News and English Digest. The former is a government organ, meant to be read by the 'selected few' as the price of one single copy amounts to the equivalent of two US dollars. The paper is given free of charge on board aeroplanes and in government offices outside the country, the aim being to reach for a wider international audience. English Digest, on the other hand, tries to address a different readership with special interest in pedagogical matters such as proposing French equivalents to English idioms. Another significant feature is the proliferation of English accounts and cartoon stories in the columns of the Tunisian Francophone press. This may be seen as a clear sign of the growing influence of English in the written press.

4.3. English in Advertising. As noted earlier in this study, mass marketing is a new phenomenon in North Africa, one that is often associated with the economic liberalisation of the late 1980s. Prior to that time, most organisations and state-run enterprises had little reason to advertise their products or services. With the new economic direction, however, advertising has become a necessity. Not surprisingly, the advent of advertising has created a new space for the use of English in Tunisia. Tunisian Francophone daily papers now run a few of their job advertisements in the English language, particularly when the job description requires the mastery of English. Similarly, adverts for products draw upon English in an attempt to secure a significant share of the market at home and abroad. Equally important, perhaps, is the frequent recourse to English in billboard-style advertising. This seems to be the case when ads feature designers' products like brand-name jeans and other fashionable clothing items. As Walters has pointed out, in the circumstances, "English is used more for its snob value than for communicative purposes" (Walters 1998:38). A similar explanation would certainly apply to the never-ending flow of English words and catch phrases that manufacturers print on certain types of clothes such as T-shirts, sports jackets, and jogging suits. A curious eye can easily come across these slogans on people's garments: "American Dream", "I am special, I drink Special", "Make Love, not War", "My Ex's in Texas", etc. Such instances of English usage in a Tunisian setting can only be the extension of "a larger world-wide phenomenon," which Walters defines as "the diffusion of an international youth culture of consumption that comes packaged in the English language." (Walters 1998:38)

4.4. Comments. English, as we have just seen, occupies a favourable position in advertising. It is most probable that it will gain more ground as a promotional tool in Tunisia, reinforcing thus the role that it plays. One of the merits of English in the advertising field, to borrow Walters' expression, is "its novelty and its cachet as the primary vehicle by which the international youth culture of consumption is spread" (Walters 1998:52). The English input in advertising, as is its contribution to 'Pop Music', will most likely enhance the positive attitudes that younger Tunisians entertain towards this global language. The key question, however, is whether in the near or distant future the positive attitude that younger Tunisians seem to have vis à vis English will challenge and undermine the high esteem in which the French language and its culture have long been held by many Tunisian intellectuals. These intellectuals usually form the Francophile junta that continues to be at the forefront of the political scene and still has a powerful influence on various aspects of Tunisian public life. For the present, it will be very difficult to predict with any certainty the outcome of this cross-cultural / linguistic confrontation and its widespread social and economic ramifications in a Tunisian / North African setting.

One thing is certain -- The most recent census, conducted by the Tunisian Ministry of Social Affairs, showed that 10% of the population knew how to read and write English. Among these 10%, the mastery of the language and degree of proficiency vary from elementary to advanced, culminating with those who hold doctoral degrees in the field of British and American Studies. Equally important is the fact that 31% of the population were declared illiterate, 69% maintained that they had knowledge of written Arabic and finally 54% claimed knowledge of written French. It is therefore clear that despite the recent territorial gains of the English language in Tunisia, it still lags behind Standard Arabic and French. These two languages remain far more important than English, at least for the time being.


In light of these analyses, it will be useful to return to the title of the presentation. This is certainly intended to be ironic. As far as one can tell, there is no conspiracy, no concerted effort by 'Anglican' missionaries to 'anglify' Carthage in the way there were serious attempts by the Pères Blancs to 'Frenchify' Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco during the colonial period. Tunisians have good reasons to believe that no such a plot is afoot. Meantime, the Francophile junta seems to live in constant fear of what Walters (1998) calls the 'seeping spread' of English in Tunisia - a phenomenon which is more difficult to fight than a well-defined, coercive strategy for linguistic domination. No doubt, the "Arab nationalists" and the "Islamic fundamentalists" among Tunisians will bitterly resent the 'English' intrusion, just as they have deeply resented the 'French' reign. On a more optimistic note, the advocates of a multilingual set-up will consider English as a further enrichment of the Tunisian linguistic marketplace. This seems to be in keeping with what they term "the dialogue of languages and cultures on North African soil." Khatibi (1993), for example, proposes a strategy to decide what the priorities are in terms of language learning and language use in a North African situation - such a strategy is based on three criteria: the home linguistic environment, the geo-strategic context, and the international dimension of some languages. Taking these elements into account, Khatibi suggests that Arabic should remain the official language in North Africa; Amazighe (the Berber language) comes next as the vehicle of expressing national identity, culture, and heritage. Not surprisingly, he sees English as the first foreign language because of its global status. Finally, he remarks that North Africans should be given an option to learn a second foreign language which could be one of these choices: French, Spanish, German, or Italian.

Recent developments in Tunisia and the emergence of what is commonly known as the 'New World Order' (or Disorder!) have inevitably brought about changes at various levels of social and political life. The intellectual elite, the decision makers and all the stakeholders in Tunisian affairs are now fully convinced that any access to "modernity" and "high technology" is necessarily across the Anglo-American path. This may explain the increasing number of exchange programs that Tunisian higher education institutions have set up and implemented in collaboration with British and American universities. In an age of globalisation, Tunisians are doomed to open up their respective countries to foreign influence as this appears to be the quickest route out of isolationism to internationalism. Exclusion, isolation and signs of withdrawal will necessarily cause lethargy. Finally, my answer to whether 'English' is a 'Satan' or a 'Saint' will be non-committal and vague. I am tempted to say that 'English' in Tunisia is a Satan in the gown of a Saint. I feel equally tempted to use another metaphor: English in Tunisia is a beacon on the top of a sand dune. Perhaps, to bring this metaphorical halo to a close, I will refer to Keith Walters' imagistic representation of English in Tunisia. He sees it as a veneer of Western Civilisation:

Like a veneer, English in Tunisia has been applied to an already existing surface, in this case, an especially complex linguistic situation characterised by a post-diglossic Arabic continuum and post-colonial bilingualism . . . As with a veneer, the already existing surface shines through as French and Arabic influence the nature of the English found here. Just as a veneer adds beauty, durability, and value to the object to which it is applied, English will make Tunisia a more attractive place for English-speaking tourists to visit, for anglophone corporations to transact business, and for English-speaking Tunisians seeking to keep abreast of international developments in many domains. (Walters 1998:58)

It is in this inviting spirit and with the hope that my readers will take some interest in Tunisia and its people that this essay is offered.


Bahloul, M. & Andy Seymour. (1991). "Sustainability and ESP Aid Projects in Tunisia" in ELT Management Journal.

Boukous, A. (1995). Socité, Langues et Cultures au Maroc: Les enjeux symboliques. Rabat: Publications de la Faculte des Lettres.

Bourdieu, P. (1982). Ce que parler veut dire. Paris: Fayard.

Daoud, M. (1998). "The management of innovation in ELT in Tunisia" in English in North Africa, Bahloul, Jabeur & Manai (eds). Sfax: TSAS Publications, 1999, pp. 121-136.

El-biad, M. (1990). "The Role of some Population Sectors in the Progress of Arabization in Morocco," International Journal of the Sociology of Language 87:24-44.

Gravel, L.A. (1979). "A Sociolinguistic Investigation of Multilingualism in Morocco," Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. New York: Columbia University.

Guebels, V. (1988). "La motivation pour les langues etrangeres chez les lyceens de Rabat,"Revue Marocaine de Didactique des Langues, No.1:25-38.

Kennedy, C. (ed). (1984). TESP Newsletter, No 1 & 2. Tunis: IBLV.

Khatibi, A. (1993). Penser le Maghreb. Rabat: Editions SMER.

________. (1983). Maghreb Pluriel. Paris-Rabat: Denoel/SMER.

________. (1987). Figures de l'Étranger dans la Littérature de Langue Française. Paris: Denoel.

Memmes, A. (1992). Litterature Maghrebine de Langue Française: Signifiance et Interculturalité. Rabat: Editions OKAD.

Milner, J.C. (1978). L'Amour de la Langue. Paris: Editions de minuit.

Ministry of Higher Education, Tunisia. (2000). Guide de l'Orientation Universitaire. Tunis: Direction Generale des Affaires Estudiantines, pp. 12-13).

Ministry of National Education, Morocco. (1989). Service de la Planification.

Payne, R.M. (ed). (1983). Language in Tunisia. Tunis: IBLV.

Sadiqi, F. (1991). "The Spread of English in Morocco," in International Journal of the Sociology of the Language, 87: 99-114.

Salhi, R. (1984). "Language Planning: A case study of English in Tunisia," Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. Tunis: University of Tunis.

Twyford, C.W. & Jerry R. McCune. (1984). "Teaching of English at Tertiary Level in Tunisia," A report submitted to the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education.

Walters, K. (1998). "New Year Happy," in English in North Africa pp.33-59.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Casablanca Conference

Last modified: 7 May 2001