Hebrew as a Medium Sized Language Community (MSLC). Challenges faced by MSLC in the XXI Century

Anat Stavans, Universitat Hebrea de Jerusalem | 5 novembre, 2009

Anat Stavans (Hebrew University in Jerusalem) introduces the reader to the challenges faced by Hebrew as a middle-sized language, both as the majority language of a multilingual Israel, and as the (sacred) language that unifies the Jewish diaspora. The most successful case of language revival has increased its demographic basis exponentially in the 20th century thanks to a process of intergenerational language shift away from the languages of the Jewish immigrants. This process remains underway today, although significant differences are recorded between different immigrant communities; for example, Ethiopians adopt Hebrew much faster than Russian Jews. Hebrew remains, nonetheless, the most widely used language in Israel in virtually all domains.

It is used not only in administrative affairs, across the whole educational system, and in daily interpersonal communication, but also in the written and audiovisual media, cinema, theatre, music, the book industry and popular culture. This is not to say that Israel is a monolingual society. Next to Hebrew, Arabic is a de iure official language of Israel, and Palestinian Arabic remains the everyday language of the Arab community, but the clear communitarian gap makes Arabic a rather distant language for many Jews. In contrast, English occupies a pivotal position as the country’s major language of communication with the rest of the world, both virtually and face-to-face. English is the major second language learnt by Israelis. Many other languages, from Russian to Circassian and from Yiddish to French, are also used to a major or lesser degree, mostly (though not always) among the older immigrant generations. Although it is a revived language, the Hebrew language system does not seem to offer many reasons for concern, although some voices are suspicious of a process of anglification. The paper reviews in some detail the complexities of Israel’s dual educational system, and its efforts both to integrate children with varied linguistic backgrounds, and to prepare them for a plurilingual society. The paper ends by noting some of the challenges for Hebrew in the future. One of them, shared with all other MSLC, will be that of establishing their need, legitimacy and essentiality as cultural vehicles of their speakers in the framework of a globalized world. Another one, specifically related to Hebrew, will be “whether the educational system will make linguistic allowances and accept other minority languages as legitimate heritage languages. This will only be possible when the “organic” multilingualism of Israel will outlive the “synthetic” need to mainstream both linguistically and culturally its people.”



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