'Leave an Israeli in England - eventually he will learn how to speak'

Wall Street Institute CEO says Israelis are exposed to English and understand it, but not confident enough to speak it.

gali arnon 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
gali arnon 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Every second Israeli adult would like to improve his or her English, but only about 2 percent actually take steps to work on their English skills, surveys by the Wall Street Institute language center show. The surveys, conducted two or three times a year, show a huge gap between the intentions of Israeli adults to learn better English and the actualization of those intentions. Israelis are exposed to a large amount of English compared to people in Spain and Italy, where much foreign television and cinema is dubbed. But because of the traditional education system and its emphasis on learning grammar rules instead of speech, Israelis understand a lot of English but lack the confidence to speak it. Awareness of the need to know English is very high among Israelis, compared to places like France, Spain and Italy, says Gali Arnon, CEO of the Wall Street Institute in Israel. "It's very clear here to the average Israeli adult that in order to succeed in life in whatever you do - in career, in studies, in business and even in going abroad on vacation, or just using the Internet - English is necessary... I think it has something to do with personal confidence as well," says Arnon, 29, in near-perfect English. According to Arnon, WSI clients say they feel inferior when traveling or doing business abroad because of their lack of English - and Israelis hate to feel inferior. Men and women who have commanded hundreds of IDF soldiers in battle, technical wizards who have turned garage start-ups into multi-million dollar enterprises, and religious figures with devoted followers all come up against a wall of fear when it comes to speaking English. "New clients come to Wall Street with a lot of fears and a lowered sense of personal confidence," says Arnon. "They're not sure whether or not they're capable of dealing with people 'in the real world,' the global village. Usually they come to us after something has pushed them into the act of improving their English, something like being embarrassed on a trip abroad because someone else did all the talking for them. We got a story of a grandmother who wanted to be able to talk to her grandchildren, who had grown up in Canada, spoke better English than Hebrew and were coming to visit her in Israel. Sometimes it has to do with where a person is in their career development." The WSI is a large international concern operating in 27 countries with more than 450 centers, including Latin America, Europe, the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Israel) and Asia. It has 10 centers in Israel and is part of the Kidum Group, owned by Kaplan Inc. - one of the world's biggest private education companies. Like other professionals in her field, Arnon points to weaknesses in the formal education system in Israel, which focuses on writing grammar and comprehension in English classes and does not teach students how to speak the language. "When you come to think about it, what you study in high school is basically grammar rules. The only time I actually needed to talk was five minutes in front of my teacher for a test on Arthur Miller's All my Sons," Arnon says. "You sit in a class of 30-40 students, and what you learn is stuff like present progressive and present continuous, etc. You don't actually get the opportunity to speak. And then comes the real world. And when the Israeli has to speak English in front of people or conduct business in English, he or she has no background in it," she continues, adding, "When you need to learn a language, you don't start with grammar rules. The way to learn a language is to hear, to experience it. The way a child learns a language is to listen to their parents and to interact in the language." Arnon's philosophy has been shaped by her seven years at the WSI. Once a new student walks into one of the institute's language centers - located throughout Israeli malls, for clients' convenience - he or she is totally immersed in English. All or most of the teachers are native English speakers, many with some background in education. The WSI has 23 different levels of English, starting with Survival 1. The institute teaches only English and only to adults. "We believe that even if a client is starting at the very first stage, Survival 1, they can adapt and learn - it's all about gaining confidence. It's tough in the beginning, but we're not leaving them with any choice once they walk in - they have to learn how to survive in English. And that's the way it is in real life. If you land in England and know no English whatsoever, you will have to adapt and learn the language in order to survive. This is what we're doing at Wall Street. A client even has to ask for a lesson at reception in English," Arnon says. The theory is that gradually, as the student gains a greater command of English, their confidence to use it grows, too. At the language centers, staff try to imitate real-world situations, be they personal or professional, thereby giving the student a simulated experience of life in English, lowering their fears of such encounters and raising their confidence. The instruction is also less formal than the traditional classroom setting. Classes can take the form of a mock bar set up at the center, or they can be informal discussions or roundtable talks. Distractions are encouraged, people move around, and the class is not quiet. Even in business English classes, the structure is broken down into finance, marketing, IT and other areas, simulating different situations with which students may have to cope. Meanwhile, the teacher - usually a new immigrant to Israel - experiences the flipside of this situation: Many new immigrants lack the confidence to speak Hebrew for several years during their absorption, and teaching English to Israelis - including some of the situations and mannerisms they might encounter overseas - is one way of easing into Israeli society. Some of the teachers and students develop friendships outside of the center, helping both parties gain confidence in the languages. "Every time we throw a party for the students and employees, we see the differences in the culture, and we see how some of the teachers stay within their comfort zones," Arnon says. "Some teachers come to us while studying Hebrew in ulpan, and they can identify with our students, especially when it comes to confidence. Sometimes they ask me why we don't have Wall Street for Hebrew, because some of the ulpans are too formal, less experiential. Our teachers identify with the students - they know exactly how they feel." New clients and new teachers alike need "someone to lean on, someone to help them feel they belong," Arnon says. Recently the WSI joined the arrangement between The Wall Street Journal Europe and The Jerusalem Post, according to which every new WSI student gets free access to the Post for two weeks, and the Post gets access to the database of WSI students so it can follow up with subscriptions. The Wall Street Journal Europe is offered to Post subscribers at a monthly rate.