Arabic is the official language of Algeria and Berber is afforded ‘national’ language status. While standard Arabic (MSA) is used in both written and spoken form in the media and government, it differs significantly from the language known as Algerian Arabic that the vast majority of people speak in daily life. In Saharan regions, a number of other Arabic dialects are spoken. Several varieties of Berber are spoken, the most common dialect being kabyle, which is spoken around Kabylie. French is still taught as a second language in schools and many Algerians still speak it, particularly in urban areas. English is now taught in secondary schools, but speakers of any fluency will be very few and far between. Algerian Arabic will undoubtedly be the most useful language for everyday communication, and any attempts on your part to speak it will be rewarded manifold through the warm reception and encouragement shown by those you practice on. If you’d like to delve more deeply into the regional dialects of Arabic, including that spoken in Algeria and neighboring countries.
Algerian Arabic is from the group of Arabic dialects known as the Western (Maghreb) dialects, which also includes Moroccan and Tunisian Arabic. It’s basically a dialect of the standard language, but so different in many respects as to be virtually another language. As with most dialects, it’s the everyday language that differs the most from that of Algeria’s other Arabic-speaking neigh- bours. More specialised or educated language tends to be pretty much the same across the Arab world, although pronunciation may vary considerably. An Arab from, say, Jordan or Iraq will have no problem having a chat about politics or literature with an Algerian, but might have more trouble making themselves understood in a market in Algiers.
There is no official written form of the Algerian Arabic dialect, although there is no practical reason for this; the alphabet is phonetically based and it would therefore be possible to devise a way to transfer spoken language to written language. For some reason though, foreigners who specifically want to learn Algerian Arabic instead of MSA are told that it can’t be written in script, and are then presented with one system or other of transliteration, none of which are totally satisfactory. This will give you some idea of why few non-Arabs and non-Muslims embark on the study of the language. Nevertheless, if you take the time to learn even a handful of words and phrases, you’ll discover and experience much more while travelling through the country.
Berber languages are spoken in many parts of Algeria, but mainly in Kabylie, in the Aurès, and in the Sahara (by Tuaregs). Until the Phoenicians' arrival, Berber was spoken throughout Algeria, as later attested by early Tifinaghinscriptions. Despite the growth of Punic, Latin, and later Arabic, Berber remained the main language of Algeria until well after the French invasion in 1830. Arabic remains Algeria's only official language, although Berber has recently been recognized as a national language. The 1963 constitution and the 1976 constitution do not mention Berber and French. The Permanent Committee on Geographical Names for British Official Use (PCGN) stated "official attitudes towards both Berber and French have been largely negative" and "The Algerian authorities have even at times rejected use of the very word “Berber”, either on the secular grounds that the term undermines national unity, or on the religious grounds that it is a term hostile to Islam."
The Berber languages/dialects spoken in Algeria include:
- Kabyle, about 5 million speakers mostly in Kabylie and surrounded regions, due to Kabyle migration outside of the Kabyle region in Algeria and Europe, some estimates are as high as 8 million.
- Chaouia (also called Tachawit, Chawi) in the Aurès, maybe 2 million speakers.
- Chenoua, in the Dahra region, particularly of Jebel Chenoua in Algeria, just west of Algiers near Tipaza province and Cherchell and the Chlef., estimated 120,000 speakers.
- Beni Snous and Beni Said, dialects of Berber spoken in various villages of the wilaya of Tlemcen.
- Mozabite (Tumẓabt) in the M'zab, Ghardaia
- Language of Touat and Gourara (called "Taznatit" by the Ethnologue, but that name is used for most of the Zenati languages)
- Language of Touggourt and Temacine
- Tamahaq, among the Tuareg of the Hoggar
The Permanent Committee on Geographical Names states reported “Algeria is the second largest Francophone country in the world in terms of speakers.” In 2008, 11.2 million Algerians (33%) could read and write in French. French is a part of the standard school curriculum, and is widely understood estimation is 21 million Algerians can write and read French, which is more 50% of the population, and the figure is higher if those who can only speak and understand it are included, so if you know French, you shouldn’t face any problem.
Although English has been taught in Algeria in middle schools since 1970, it never became as wide spread as the first foreign language (French) which is understandable considering French have occupied Algeria for more than 132 years, yet that was subject to change the last few decades, according to Wikipedia there are around 3 million English speakers in Algeria back in 2010.