Go to Arabic, Thou Sluggard

Salman Masalha

Go to Arabic, Thou Sluggard

We often hear about the bleak situation of the Hebrew spoken by students in the schools. In a document published after the latest matriculation exams, senior Education Ministry inspectors once again sounded the alarm. The report also included recommendations to teachers for improving the situation by focusing on thinking and analysis, in order to give students tools for dealing with tasks through deep understanding of the material.

Reports and recommendations of this sort are published from time to time and we often encounter statements to the effect that students have difficulty with questions requiring analysis and understanding or fail to accomplish tasks because they do not understand words and concepts and the like. However, despite all the reports, papers and recommendations submitted in recent years, there has been no improvement. These documents have not succeeded in causing a turnaround because they are off the mark.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” according to Proverbs 18:21. It could be said that all human creativity, in all areas of culture including the exact sciences, is dependent on language. Language is the tool for thinking and the richer a person’s language is, the richer his thinking will be, and vice versa. Moreover, it is not enough that language be the province of the few. Richness of language, including grammar and syntax, must be the province of every student in the schools.

To what is this comparable? To a society in which the wealth is in the hands of the few while the majority of the citizenry is living in poverty. Such a society will be considered poor because the wealth is not spread through the entire society. The same is true of richness of language. Without instilling richness of language into the society as a whole, there is no meaning to the dictionary wealth standing on the shelf or in the hands of a few.

The deterioration of the level of young people’s language in recent years is in part caused by the media, in which companies and individuals with commercial interests and their chase after ratings dictate the content. The captains of the broadcasting networks put the emphasis on various sorts of voyeuristic programming. When instead of bringing on the air intelligent, knowledgeable individuals and scientists whose language is rich and whose minds are acute, they highlight feeble-minded and inarticulate celebrities – so it is no wonder the level of the language of young people who flock to the follies of celebrity is so low.

The growing gap between spoken Hebrew and standard Hebrew is pushing the language into the corner Arabic has been inhabiting for generations now. The duality in the Arabic language plays an important role in delaying the development of Arab societies – as noted, complex thinking and creativity are not possible without rich, precise language.

The Hebrew language is undergoing a process of desertification similar to the desertification that has been experienced by the Arabic language. This processes is causing the achievements in the schools to deteriorate. As the gap between the spoken and the standard language grows wider, and as long as richness of language is not instilled in everyone in the society from an early age, scholastic achievements will continue to deteriorate.

To reverse this process, the language wilderness must be made to bloom and richness of language must be instilled in all the students and teachers in Israel, both Jews and Arabs. The spoken language, be it Hebrew or Arabic, is not only distancing and alienating the population from the rich, precise language of creativity – it is also leading to shallowness of thought regardless of age.
To those who are seeking the root of the problem it can therefore be said: Go to Arabic, thou sluggard, consider its ways and be wise.

Published in Haaretz Online, Opinion, May 16, 2010

For Hebrew, press here.


Salman Masalha


When cats decide to sleep
nothing disturbs their night.
It's we who make the noise
going from fight to fight.

When cats decide to dream
nothing can change their minds.
It's we who spoil their night
with snores of many kinds.

One snores as if he speaks.
Sometimes it sounds like French,
but you who sleep so deep
on a bed made of a bench.

-- no way for me to try
to show you my cat's revenge.