Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Israel's Hebrew Legacy: English a Barrier ?

Israeli schools are great at teaching English to an acceptable business level. But only a few Israelis end up with world class English writing and editing skills. Hebrew, a language that was resurrected in Israel in the 1880's by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and others is thriving. Being the main language in Israel for three generations, its been the mission of Israelis to be a language of everything. But this phenomenal success comes at a cost. Israel's economy and business simply needs more English writers, speakers and editors (for that matter many other languages.) The problem seem most acute in the technology and tourism sectors. English is not just a bridging language between Israeli technologists and the world, it is used extensively to document and plan. Essentially working in English is helpful in preparing a company to market internationally. Writing in English all along the product development and marketing process enable Israeli technologists get to international market quicker.

A bit of history of the modern Hebrew language. Hebrew is essentially a modern language with ancient roots. As a language of religious study, it has been used by Jews for two thousand years. But religious study did not mean daily use. Therefore Hebrew was neglected for over 1,000 maybe even 2,000 years (that debate is related to the use of Hebrew in pre-inquisition Spain where Judaism had a golden age from 711 to 1492 CE.) When the Zionists first arrived in Israel (then Palestine ruled by the Ottoman Empire) the use of Hebrew in daily life took on a renewed interest. Clearly there was a need for the language although at times Yiddish was assumed to be the best alternative. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was not the only European Jew who had in mind reviving the language. But he is remembered today as the one to invent new words and clearly passionate enough to make Hebrew a modern usable language. Literature and poetry in Hebrew started coming from Europe at about the same time. But these were based on the knowledge of religious Hebrew used in Torah and Mishna studies in the Yeshivas.

Zoom forward 120 years to today's Hebrew. It is certainly based on biblical roots and definitely modernized by daily use and theoretical work. Hebrew was revitalized with methods making it easy to learn. It is also regularly extended and in daily use takes on many foreign words. Hebrew's ancient roots come from Aramaic and middle-eastern languages with very little relationship to Latin or Anglo-Saxon languages. Hebrew today is closer to Arabic than any other language. English is so different than Hebrew that it takes a great deal of effort to use both in daily life. This is the challenge Israelis face. Back to the English barrier in the title. Hebrew's success in Israel does come at the expense of English use. This is especially noticeable in writing and editing. A great deal of meaning is lost in translation and sometimes even the main idea in a message comes out wrong. What is written is not at all what is meant. Sometimes translated text from Hebrew to English gives a bad impression. Israeli's bad English make them seem unintelligent or even undeveloped or unsophisticated. Some brush this off as a simple difference in culture or lack of understanding of a language barrier. People with experience in countries with different language and culture know how language mistakes translate to mistakes in impression. This is exactly the problem, not enough people understand this phenomena. Working in a foreign language is hard and filled with unknowns. When writing in a foreign language to foreign audience it takes effort and experience to get the message right. With easier and better communication the Internet brings us, language differences are even more prominent. Lots of people write and publish on the Internet, but the meaning is sometimes lost in translation. This is an old problem, simply today you see it right on the computer screen in Internet speed. Hopefully when you read an English document written by a Hebrew speaker this story will come to mind. If not, at least you learned about modern Hebrew and it's success in Israel. THANK YOU for reading.


Leah said...


Thank you for your article. It really drives home the message that the translation community would like to get across. It is not enough to know two languages well in order to translate, just like it's not enough to know some HTML to code.

Important documents need to be translated (or at least edited) professionally. That way potential clients will not think Israelis to be unintelligent.

Jonathan said...

During my 31 years of living in Israel, and working with the business community, I think I can say that there has been a significant imporvement in the way Israelis use English - more and more of them are getting an education abroad, and many university texts are in English, and more and more of them are realizing that you can no longer expect to get away with speaking bad English if youare trying to do business. The problem is of course that getting to mother-tongue standard is well-nigh impossible for anyone trying to speak and write in a langauge they were not brought up in - however hard one tries, there will always be something that will give the game away.
I am not conviced by the argument that the phenomenal success in developing Hebrew as a modern language has anything much to do with the way English spoken and written by Israelis - I think that almost any non-native English speaker will have the same challenges faced by Hebrew-speakers, although, as pointed out by Avi, the difference in structure between the two languages could post a more serious challenge (although this would need to tested with regard to other non-European languages, such as the Asiatic languages, to determine whether speakers of these languages face similar issues).
The problem with the teaching of English in Israel is that instead of using the outstandingly successful Ulpan model, which concentrates in the first instance on spoken Hebrew and then goes on to grammar etc., English seems to be taught with a too much emphasis on English grammar, which is incredibly complicated, with so many exceptions as to make any attempt to teach it effectively a total nightmare.
The other more significant issue is the problem of ensuring that the cultural undertones used in communicating with the English-speaking world are ones that make sense to native-English speakers.


Ioan said...

Israel is blessed with a sizeable population sharing English ( be it UK, Australian, American, South Afrian ) as their mother tongue.
These natural Enlish speakers are widely used in businesses operating on an international level as intermediaries ( technical writers, marketing & sales personnel, etc ) and this increases the professional appearance of these companies .
In my experience in a number of such companies ( and I am NOT a native-English speaker ) we have nothing to be ashamed of when coming to the level of English used, certainly when compared with most non-English speaking countries .
You may always find people with rudimentary English, but seldom you'll have them deal directly with overseas contacts.

izzy cohen said...

Here are some ideas about teaching English to students whose first language is Hebrew.


It is helpful to identify those idioms that have a Hebraic or Aramaic origin. There are more than a few of these. Some of them are translated Hebrew idioms. For example, (to escape) "by the skin of my teeth" is a translation of B'3or SHinai (using 3 for the letter aiyin) in the book of Job 19:20. It means "barely, hardly, with difficulty" because the Hebrew phrase is a pun on the word B'QoSHi at a time when the aiyin had a G/K-sound, as in 3aZa = Gaza.

Most idioms (defined narrowly as phrases whose meaning cannot be determined by analyzing the words in them) are transliterated (not translated) from a foreign language directly into common words of the target language. For example:

The "beans" in "spill the beans" and "doesn't know beans about ..." is related to Hebrew BiNah = understanding, intelligence.

The "bag" in "let the cat out of the bag" and "left holding the bag" is related to Hebrew BaGaD = to betray. The "cat out" is from Aramaic QiSHoT = truth, at a time when the shin had a dental D/T-sound. So, to let the cat out of the bag is to betray the truth, to tell the truth when no one would dream of doing so. If you were left holding the bag, everyone else got away. You got caught because you were betrayed.

Sometimes both transliteration and translation are involved. For example, "count sheep !" (to help one go to sleep) is the translation of a Hebrew transliteration pun, S'PoR KeVeS, on the Latin phrase
sopor quies = sleep quietly, restfully (without moving). A soporific is a drug that makes you sleep. Quiescent means quiet, still or inactive. (U and V are the same letter in Latin.) This idiom has been borrowed back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR K'VaSim, to count sheep (plural).

Many other English idioms probably have a Semitic origin. Here are a few of them:

-- kick the bucket - 3aGav B'3aiDen = literally, make love in paradise
-- the Jolly Roger - DeGeLai Ra3a = flag of evil (via Arabic)
-- raining (pole)cats and dogs < maBooL GeSHeM SH'Qi3a =
torrent of rain descends, where SH'Qi3a > OE DoCGa = 4-legged dog
-- Welsh rabbit = cheese and ale on toast < [W]aLav + SHachaR + PaT lekhem (with an ancient W-sound for the het)

For more of these, do a Google search on
< idioms Hebrew "izzy cohen" >