Tuesday, November 3, 2009
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.