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
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.
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.
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
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.
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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