Israel's Academy of the Hebrew Language Declares War – on English

Academy rejects to courses taught in English, calls on education minister to restore Hebrew as language of academia.

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The Academy of the Hebrew Language has declared war against the increasing use of English in the country's institutions of higher learning. The academy says students have a right to speak and study in Hebrew in all course work.

Academy President Moshe Bar-Asher has met with Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and demanded that he take action immediately.

Students at Tel Aviv University. Credit: Tali Meir

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The academy called on Sa'ar to annul any ban on the use of Hebrew at any university or college department around the country. "That in the State of Israel there could be such a ban against Hebrew, as in the dark days of our people's existence, is inconceivable," said the academy.

The academy called on Sa'ar to collect data and set clear criteria for the use of English in academic work. Tali Ben Yehuda, the academy's director-general, said "demands that students study in English represent the gravest expression of the trend" of minimizing Hebrew's role in academia. Demands that students speak or study in English constitute a phenomenon "that is expanding considerably."

Unless steps are taken, she warned, "academic departments will instruct solely in English, and this will spread to the high schools, because a conscientious parent will not send his or her child to a high school that doesn't prepare the youngster for university study.

According to Ben Yehuda, "We understand pressures faced by the universities regarding the world at large, but as far as I know, the State of Israel has not decided to endorse academic study in English. This isn't a private matter on which each academic department can reach its own decision to forgo studies in Hebrew. We want Hebrew to be spoken in Israel and used in undergraduate and graduate studies, and in every school around the country."

The Weizmann Institute, for instance, requires certain studies in English. At the Technion, business administration has for the past two years been conducted in English.

Bar-Ilan University Rector Haim Taitelbaum says "I don't know of such departments at Bar-Ilan," referring to the English requirement. "But regarding the principle, such a requirement of English study is permissible, and in some contexts it's a good thing because the scientific research language around the world is English."

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's chemistry department has sent a letter in English to students saying that research papers written in Hebrew will no longer be accepted. It said advanced research seminars would be conducted in English. This is because "the language of science is English."

Yehuda Band, the head of the university's chemistry department, said last night that this English-use requirement did not apply to undergraduates. He said that "if someone tries to record research results in Hebrew, that consigns his or her work to oblivion - nobody will read the research summary. Every person who deals in science today in Israel reads English."

According to Band, written work in English "adds prestige to the institution and department where a graduate student writes his thesis. Whatever the language of the dissertation, the researcher will have to proceed to publish his work in English."

According to Band, another argument in favor of English is Ben-Gurion University's desire to recruit foreign students. The moment there's a student in a class who doesn't speak Hebrew, the lesson has to be conducted in English.

"Of course, these circumstances make things harder for people whose native tongue is Hebrew, and yet the use of English is something that any scientist has to master to advance in his or her work," Band said. "If a researcher doesn't know English, he's finished. If he doesn't know how to write in English, he won't be able to publish on his own and will depend on the largesse of others."

For its part, Tel Aviv University said that in courses where lessons are conducted in Hebrew, "exams and papers are also completed in Hebrew."