As a nation of immigrants, Israel has been, from its very inception as a geopolitical entity, one of the most linguistically heterogeneous societies in the world. Right through the twentieth century, Israel has welcomed wave after wave of immigrants from countries all over the world including the former Soviet Union, Germany, Ethiopia, India and Brazil. The country is also home to Arabic speakers whose forebears occupied the region well before the creation of the sovereign State of Israel. In the early years of nation building, Israel took pride in its diversity but acknowledged the need to create a unified identity through a common language. Now that Hebrew is firmly established as the national tongue, Israel is witnessing a resurgence of interest in foreign languages. 

Hebrew Renaissance and The Melting Pot
In order to forge a strong sense of unity and national identity among its ethnically and linguistically diverse population, the newly formed government of the independent State of Israel resolved to actively revive and promote the use of the Hebrew language in all spheres of private and public life. An intensive programme supported by the public enabled the remarkable renaissance of Hebrew, a language that had formerly been reserved for literature and prayer. It was now to be spoken in homes, schools, offices, courts and parliament.

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In order to earn its place as the official national language, Hebrew needed to compete with more popular Jewish diasporic languages and European languages including Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, German, Romanian and Polish. The use of Yiddish was actively discouraged. Today, it is largely marginalised in speech, literature and culture in general. Critics of this ‘melting pot’ policy argue that it has been detrimental to the diverse cultural inheritance of Israel since cultural transmission is dependent largely upon the transmission of language. The great emphasis on Hebrew for all forms of communication resulted in creating a culture of monolingualism among the younger generations, a pattern that is only now beginning to be broken as globalisation prompts more and more Israelis to acquire wider language skills.


Linguistic Diversity in Present Day Israel
Even though Hebrew is preferred for all forms of official and unofficial communication, Israel still preserves a culture of multilingualism. This is due, in part, to the school system and administration. Hebrew is the preferred medium of instruction in secular and ultra-orthodox schools. Students in Arabic-medium schools are required to learn Hebrew. The reverse is also true to some extent. Both Hebrew and Arabic enjoy the status of ‘official language’. English is taught as required second language across the board and is even widely used in government administration. The prevalence of English in Israel may be due in great part to the legacy of British civil administration in the region until 1948. In present times, however, fluency in English is a reflection of an increasingly well-travelled and internationally connected younger generation.

 

Hence, for all practical purposes, Israel remains a largely multilingual society. Street signs are frequently trilingual or at least bilingual. Newspapers cater to a variety of linguistic groups and everything from websites to product packaging is multilingual.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Russian is one of the most widely spoken languages in Israel. The
prevalence of Russian is a consequence of the Soviet and post-Soviet origins of a vast chunk of Israel’s present population. In fact, government websites are nearly all available in Russian, besides Hebrew, Arabic and English. A significant percentage of government servants and officials are proficient in the language and there are a number of Russian language newspapers and TV channels as well. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in every 5 Israelis speaks fluent Russian.

Globalisation Spurs Interest In Foreign Languages


An increasing interest in foreign languages has been prompted partly by the necessity of marching rhythm with the rest of the world and partly out of a greater recognition of the need to celebrate the ethnic and linguistic identities straining beneath the surface of the all-Jewish state.

In response to increasing business collaborations with the People’s Republic of China, more Israelis have started to learn Mandarin Chinese. The growing cultural influence and
popularity of telenovelas has fuelled an interest in learning Spanish and, to some extent, Portuguese. Interest in Spanish received a boost with the arrival of Argentine Jews from the 1950s. Now, Israel has its own Spanish-language newspaper and television channel. Similarly, the influx of large numbers of Ethiopians beginning in the 1970s is responsible for the popularity of the Amharic language.

Schools and universities today offer classes in world languages such as French, German, Spanish and Chinese. Literature in languages other than Hebrew has blossomed in recent years. This includes works in Yiddish, English, German and Arabic. In fact, the state has even instituted a prestigious award for the recognition of outstanding literary work in Arabic. Israeli music, too, is considered to be a striking synthesis of diverse influences drawn from across the world. 

The Way Forward
Learning foreign languages has taken on new momentum now that the process is aided by technology. Innovative language learning apps have accelerated foreign language acquisition among young Israelis in particular. Some online services, like the website
Native Monks, work by connecting students with native speakers of foreign languages so that the process can be interactive and educational at the same time. The advantage of one-on-one interaction with a native speaker is that it becomes possible to learn the intricacies and nuances of colloquial usage and cultural references. This is a more meaningful approach than merely learning from books that promote a more formal and standardised literary version of any language. With such dedicated support available at their fingertips and on portable personal devices, more Israelis are taking to learning foreign languages in their spare time. 


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