The current higher education language war

from the very beginning, despite the undisputed predominance of Hebrew in, a language problem emerged.

By
March 4, 2012 21:33
4 minute read.
Israel’s diverse student body has more choices

Students at Ariel university 390. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Exactly 99 years ago, on the eve of World War I, a major battle took place between the founders of the Technion in Haifa and the Zionist Organization regarding the language of teaching in the planned institution for higher technological education. The German Ezra Society, which stood behind the foundation of the Technion, insisted that German should be the official teaching language, while the Zionist Organization insisted it should be Hebrew.

The “language war,” as it was referred to at the time, ended with a knockout victory for the Hebrew language, which also became the official language of the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine, in all spheres. After the establishment of the State of Israel Hebrew and Arabic were declared official languages, which meant that no one (except perhaps for the Ashkenazi haredim, or ultra-Orthodox) questioned the predominance of Hebrew in the non-Arab education system, from kindergarten to university.

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However, from the very beginning, despite the undisputed predominance of Hebrew in the field of higher education, a language problem did emerge. While a growing number of academic teaching materials were written in Hebrew, or translated from foreign languages, in most fields of higher education there was no way to avoid including English language reading materials in the obligatory bibliographies of courses. This created something of a problem, since despite the fact that most students have a minimal knowledge of English, this is rarely at a level that enabled the reading and understanding of more complicated texts. As a result, students are required to pass English proficiency tests and to take English language courses during their first year of studies.

But now a new phenomenon has emerged. A growing number of courses (though still insignificant in absolute terms) at many Israeli universities, especially at the MA and PhD level, are delivered in English, and in some courses the students are actually required to write papers and exams in English. The main reason for this practice is that the lingua franca of the academic world today is English, and in most academic fields, if you do not speak and write in English, you simply do not exist.

There are no laws or regulations that forbid this phenomenon from spreading and taking root, and the Council for Higher Education has actually stated that the whole issue is within the bounds of the academic freedom of the universities, with which it is wary of meddling.

However, recently the Hebrew Language Academy decided to take up arms and fight the trend. The position of the Academy is not that there is no place for the use of English in the institutions of higher education, but that rules should be laid down, and adapted to real academic requirements, rather than to snobbish and elitist motives.

Personally I favor the maximal use of Hebrew (and Arabic where necessary) in all spheres of our daily lives, and do not underrate the importance of language in our national identity and being. I am also inclined to view the new battle in the language war as something of a luxury that is irrelevant as far as the vast majority of students are concerned.

The truth is that a high percentage of students today are not even proficient in their own mother tongue. Sadly, most BA students are incapable of understanding even simple texts in Hebrew, not to speak of writing a proper essay in Hebrew, with an introduction, the presentation of a case and a conclusion. As a result, many exams at colleges and even universities today are so called “American tests,” where students must simply mark the correct answer among several possibilities without writing a word, or require answers that are no longer than twitter texts. In other words, the important battle should be about our students’ command of their own language.

Nevertheless, the foreign language issue certainly deserves serious consideration. Within the framework of this consideration a look should be also taken at the situation in the European Union, where a policy of encouraging student mobility within the EU area has resulted in many countries, such as Germany, encouraging the delivery of a certain percentage of the courses at their universities in English. For example, one of my daughters, who teaches at the Free University in Berlin, gives a seminar in English, and her students are entitled to present their seminar papers in English, Germany and... Hebrew.

Perhaps international student mobility is not much of an issue in Israel today; we are much more concerned with confronting academic boycotts. However, hopefully before long we shall be free of the boycott threats, and shall be able to concentrate on integrating more fully into the world academic community, where, as already stated, English is the lingua franca.

The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and used to teach at the Hebrew University in the early 1970s.


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