To speak or not to speak

My months of agony at ulpan were curtailed when, fortunately, I got much-needed work.

notes 88 (photo credit: )
notes 88
(photo credit: )
It drives me to despair. Friends arriving from England whom I haven't seen for the eighteen months since I was domicile there always challenge me with the same question. "I suppose you speak Hebrew now?" or some other nonsense such as "I expect you listen to the news on TV, read the newspaper and so forth in Hebrew". And then I tell my story about how when I received an official-looking document with a sum of money boxed at the end of it, I proceeded to go to the Post Office to pay before something or other got cut off. On my way I met my neighbor and casually asked which service I was paying for. It was a statement of my first month's earnings! Things that arrive in the post are swiftly divided into those that need paying and the rest - that go in the bin. Notes from school are also swiftly dealt with. If my son doesn't have any idea what they are about (and often he doesn't) then I look for a date on which something might be happening and try to work out what is happening. If there is no date and no sum of money, then clearly nothing much is required of me…into the bin. I did responsibly take one statement of my account to the bank for deciphering, wondering what the endless list of things I seem to be charged for was "It's not worth going through" the guy behind the desk assured me. More for the bin. But do Israelis really understand what it is like to become an illiterate at the age of 50 plus. I look at the newspapers people are reading next to me on the bus, I look out of bus windows at the shop signs, posters on the billboards. Total bewilderment. In the supermarket I ponder whether the offer is two for the price of one or one free when I buy two. My months of agony at ulpan were curtailed when, fortunately, I got much-needed work. And now, like every other good Israeli, I work endless hours for what my employers know can't possibly be a living wage. So when do I have time or energy to learn this impossible language that has not the faintest ring of familiarity to someone deeply imbued in Latin-based languages? Even the people I work with occasionally throw the "You must learn Hebrew" dictum at me. Well of course I must... ...or must I? Now that is an interesting question. Dangerous territory this. Language and nationality are hard to tease apart. In south-east Asia lives have been lost in establishing the pre-eminence of one language over another, one nationality over another. An inseparable and powerful weave, this fabric of our lives. Last month, France's President Jacques Chirac marched out of a European summit on industrial co-operation and reform when his compatriot Earnest-Antoine Seilliere, president of UNICE, addressed the meeting in English "because that is the accepted business language of Europe." Chirac's exit, flanked by the French Foreign Minister and Finance Minister, was especially ironic since UNICE was founded post-war to foster common elements to European industrial policy. The French triumvirate returned when another Frenchman, European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet, addressed the summit in French. What complete nonsense, especially as English is one of the official languages of the EU. There was a time when only French held sole claim to that title, but now there are 20 official languages and, on January 1st, 2007 a 21st will be added: Irish. Twenty-one official languages? That is absurd. Especially when you consider that almost half of all members of the EU speak English very well. And when you look at the Swedes, Dutch and Danes, the figure approaches 80%. Anyway, like it or not, Monsieur President, English is the lingua franca of the business, science and technology communities throughout the world. Hebrew has, of course, been a way of uniting a polyglot people in this country of millions of emigres from around the world. We have bonded together in this particular Babel by making Hebrew our national language. But never mind me learning Hebrew. I don't have to prove my Zionist credentials. I'm here! What about the appalling level of English among native born Israelis? English is not spoken nearly well enough here in Israel. That's something to worry about. There are only about seven million Hebrew speakers worldwide - a couple of million fewer than the number of Swedish speakers and a million or so more than the number of Danes. About 200 000 Hebrew speakers live in the US - presumably expat Israelis. But isn't it amazing, according to US Census Bureau statistics, that only about 80% of them speak English very well. Israelis only achieve the same sort of level English while living in the US that the Swedes do while living in Sweden. The level of English in Israel is appalling. We should be aiming to achieve the sort of English proficiency that other language minorities, like the Swedes and the Dutch, manage. Now whether I ever get beyond the level of being able to mutter at the level of what I call kitchen, or domestic, Hebrew is important to me but there is a much bigger issue here. For Israel to continue to claim its place in the competitive global markets it needs to improve its English dramatically. And while I'm stirring around in this particular can of worms what about making English the lingua franca of the whole region?