This week, I had a chance to sit down with Khouloud Gargouri and ask her a few questions about her background in French, her home country of Tunisia, and how the French language functions in the cultural landscape of Tunisia.

Gargouri is a Teaching Assistant in the French and Francophone studies department and this is both her first year at Bates and her first time teaching in America. Gargouri is from Tunisia, where the official spoken language is Tunisian Arabic. Among other languages, some of the children in Tunisia learn French.

While Gargouri was growing up, her mother was a French teacher and taught her French from a very young age. Gargouri  explained that she really admired her mother when she was younger because of the activities she did with her students. Her mother incorporated elements of theatre, poetry, cinema, and music into her teaching of French to enhance students’ understanding of both Tunisian and French culture. Gargouri tries to do utilize the same tactics in the French classes she teaches at Bates, as well. She explained that she exposes students to cultural elements of both countries to encourage students to compare the two. Doing so, she says, reveals that the “context, history, and literature” of both countries are drastically different.

When teaching about Francophone culture, Gargouri strives to raise an awareness about Tunisian culture. Specifically, she wants to “show that French and Francophone culture are not just about France… they’re about the influence of French in Maghreb countries where French is spoken as a main language.”

Gargouri aims to teach students that Tunisia is “more modern than one might think.”

She explained that the Jasmine Revolution, which started the Arab Spring in 2011, ushered in “more freedom to express opinions” in the country. She even listed some of the many modern policies recently enacted in the country, such as the abolishment of laws that prevented Tunisian women from marrying non-Muslim men and laws that previously granted men a larger sum of their parent’s inheritance than their sisters. Additionally, she feels that compared to “other Maghreban countries or the Arabic world,” the arts community in Tunisia is much more developed and commented on the quality of Tunisian theatre and film.

As to the role French plays in the cultural landscape of Tunisia, I learned that the language is taught as a subject in Tunisian high schools. However, Gargouri  explained that “French is highly spoken by ‘la bourgeoisie,’ or the rich people.” She described one’s ability to speak French as a symbol of status, saying that “it’s basically something that people can afford to give a sense of French civilization to their kids.” Unfortunately, this creates a disparity between the upper and lower classes in Tunisia when it comes to access to education.

Simply put, Gargouri said that “farmers don’t speak French.” This is detrimental because speaking French grants students wider range of job opportunities in the professional world.

Through her work as a high school teacher in the poorer regions of Tunisia, Gargouri found that her students “aren’t as motivated to learn French as [the students] in the city… because their parents are farmers… so it’s not seen as important.”

Unequal access to language education isn’t confined to the classroom, either. Gargouri revealed that some students suffer by missing out on cultural exposure to French because “their parents don’t speak French with them at home, they don’t watch French TV shows, and they don’t watch the news in French.” Because of the unequal learning opportunities in some areas of Tunisia, Gargouri strived to instill a love and passion for the language in her high school students in the classroom.

Eventually, Gargouri plans to earn a PhD and study to become a professor. For now, she is excited to continue teaching in the French and Francophone Studies Department at Bates.

She says that teaching is much more than just “giving knowledge” to the students, she feels her job as a TA is a two-way street and loves learning from students’ questions and interests, “I enjoy it so much. It motivates me, it makes me feel productive to learn and teach at the same time.”