Arabs, speak Hebrew!

Salman Masalha

Arabs, speak Hebrew!

Many Arab eyebrows - those of politicians and populist education officials - will no doubt be raised when they read this headline. At the same time, we should discuss the issue of language with due seriousness and detached from the sensitivity connected to it.

The Education Ministry recently published data on achievement levels in the school system. One finding particularly caught my eye - on achievements of students examined in Hebrew, especially Arab pupils. The report spoke of the catastrophic situation in the Arab community and said Arab students had the lowest average grade in Hebrew language. The grade in Arabic for Arab Students was only slightly higher.

Recent research by Prof. Zohar Eviatar and Dr. Rafiq Ibrahim of the University of Haifa's psychology department explain the problem from another angle. The researchers compared the speed and accuracy of comprehending texts among Arabic speakers, Hebrew speakers and English speakers. They found that the right hemisphere of the brain is involved in learning to read in Hebrew and English but not at all in learning to read Arabic.

This stems from the graphic complexity of Arabic writing, they believe. Arabic letters are joined together and change shape according to their location in a word. In addition, many letters are distinguished from one another by minute graphic signs alone. Thus Arabic writing's graphic uniqueness becomes a heavy burden on children when they are learning to read.

The data explain the considerable gap between students at Arabic-language schools and those at schools where the language of instruction is Hebrew or English. The data also partially explain Israel's low standing compared with the developed countries in international tests of schoolchildren. This gap, linked to the language's sad situation, exists in the entire Arab world. It's not by chance that not one Arab university is among the world's best 500 universities. This finding has nothing to do with Zionism or Israel.

Everyone knows that the Arabic taught in schools is compared with Hebrew or any other foreign language, but it is not the language Arab children speak at home. The mother tongue they speak at home is totally different from the literary Arabic taught at school. This situation exists throughout the Arab world.

The Arab public in Israel is not isolated from the general Arabic linguistic arena. The Arabic-language media, especially radio and television, do not provide the linguistic richness of formal Arabic. The opposite is true: They perpetuate linguistic superficiality that leads to intellectual superficiality.

Despite all this, an educational revolution is possible here. The positive results of such a revolution would be felt in just a few years. To this end, we need the courage to put the ultimate educational demand on the table: The Arabic and Druze departments at the Education Ministry must be abolished immediately and all the syllabi must be united into one core syllabus for everyone. Some 80 percent of the syllabus should include the teaching materials required for a modern and advanced education. For the remainder, special emphasis on the cultural interests of a segment of the population should be permitted.

We can conduct yet another revolutionary experiment - choose from the Arab community one or more class and decide that the language of instruction there, from kindergarten through high school, will be Hebrew. If we carry out an experiment like this, I'm convinced the positive results will not be long in coming.
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Published: Opinion-Haaretz, September 27, 2020

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