A Quarter of Israeli Citizens Struggle With Hebrew, Survey Finds

New survey released Monday reveals that 60% of immigrants from former Soviet Union have difficulty filling out forms and writing letters in Hebrew, while 45% of Israeli Arabs have trouble with such paperwork.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

If you feel at a loss when confronted with filling out a Hebrew application or start panicking when you need to correspond with a government office, take heart - you are far from alone.

Twenty-seven percent of Israeli residents aged 20 and above have a hard time filling out forms and writing letters in Hebrew, according to a Central Bureaus of Statistics survey released on Monday, which was conducted in 2011 and relied on residents' self-reporting.

Can't read Hebrew very well? You've got company there, too. According to the survey, some 39 percent of new immigrants read Hebrew with difficulty or can't read it at all.

As could be expected, these activities are more difficult for older folks: More than half of those 65 and up have difficulty writing letters or filling out forms. People who were born in the former Soviet Union have the hardest time with forms and correspondence, with some 60 percent reporting difficulty. Israeli Arabs don't have an easy time of it either, with 45 percent having trouble with Hebrew paperwork. And while native Israelis naturally have the fewest problems, 14 percent reported that form-filling and letter-writing is no picnic for them either.

Most of the Israeli Jews surveyed reported that they had a good command of Hebrew. Among Arabs, more than 60 percent reported that they have good or very good command of the language. With that, more than a quarter of new immigrants aged 20 or over who arrived in Israel since the 1990s report speaking Hebrew poorly or not speaking it at all, while, as noted, 39 percent can barely read Hebrew, if at all.

Command of Hebrew is better among more veteran immigrants; of those who arrived before 1989, 90 percent say they speak Hebrew well or very well, while 80 percent say they read Hebrew well or very well. Among Israeli Arabs, 17 percent don't read Hebrew at all, while another eight percent read very little. Twelve percent of Arabs don't understand Hebrew, while eight percent understand it with difficulty.

Most of Israel's Arabs, nearly 100 percent, speak Arabic at home and with their friends. Among Russian-speaking immigrants some 88 percent speak Russian at home and with their friends. Both groups, however, report also speaking Hebrew at home.

Hebrew is the mother tongue of around half of Israeli citizens aged 20 and above. Most of the rest grew up in homes where Arabic (18 percent) or Russian (15 percent) was spoken. Small minorities report Yiddish, French, English or Spanish as their mother tongue - about two percent for each language.

The survey also shows that, as expected, as ages rise, the ratio of those with Hebrew as their mother tongue drops, while the proportion of those whose mother tongue is Russian goes up. Thus, Hebrew is the mother tongue of some 60 percent of those between 20-44, but only 44 percent of those aged 45-65, while only 18 percent of those over 65 reported that Hebrew is their mother tongue. Russian is the mother tongue of 12 percent of the youngest group, compared to 21 percent of those over 65.

Among Jews, 61 percent say Hebrew is their mother tongue. Fourteen percent said Russian, three percent said Arabic and 2.5 percent said Yiddish. The rest grew up speaking English, French, Spanish, Amharic, Romanian and other languages.

Officials in the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption said in response that they have been warning the Education Ministry in recent years that the number of available Hebrew classes for new immigrants does not meet the demand.

IllustrationCredit: TheMarker

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