Tuesday, April 22, 2008

'The Other' Through Language: Palestinians, Israelis, & Language Learning

Tim Johnson
BBC News, Jerusalem (April 21, 2008)

Bernard Spolsky has a wonderful roof terrace. Squeezing past the potted lemon trees and up the small cobbled dome that covers the ceiling below, your gaze can sweep from the Dome of the Rock to the grand Hurva Synagogue. Prof. Spolsky has lived in the Old City for almost 30 years. For him, the pleasure lies not just in the sights, but the sounds. He is a linguist. When he and a colleague started to document the languages used by residents of the Old City, they began by using letter-coding. The alphabet, though, was not enough. "We suddenly realised we were running out of letters," Prof Spolsky recalls. "We had to use a double-letter system. here were 40-50 languages being spoken."

The Old City may be a tiny space of one sq km but it has long exerted a tremendous pull on religious communities across the world. In his book, The Languages of Jerusalem, Prof Spolsky quotes James Finn, the British Consul in Jerusalem in 1853: "Jerusalem [has] an unequalled field for languages. Venice and Constantinople might produce as great a diversity of tongues… but certainly not the depth of tone and historical value attached to those in Jerusalem." Nearly 150 years later, Prof Spolsky sees more and more cities around the world becoming multilingual. But for him, the Old City of Jerusalem remains the template.

The question is how far those people within Jerusalem, and more broadly within Israel and the Occupied Territories, want to speak each other's languages. In the past, there has been a clear incentive: money. Sometime between 1820 and 1824, Rabbi Israel ben Samuel from Shklov (in present-day Belarus) wrote, in a letter from Jerusalem: "As for us Ashkenazim, the Biblical saying, 'he hath made me dwell in dark places', was fulfilled. For we do not know the language, and we are all broken paupers." (From Spolsky and Cooper, The Languages of Jerusalem.)
That language was Arabic.

In the teeth of opposition from some rabbis, the British Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore pushed hard, in the middle of the 19th Century, for the Jews of Jerusalem to learn Arabic and European languages. That opposition continues, in some quarters, today.
Arabic is one of Israel's two official languages. But it was only this week that the education ministry was forced to backtrack on a decision not to include Arabic in the required secondary school curriculum. It had been a failed attempt to create a curriculum that would have appealed to the ultra-Orthodox.

And there is the anecdotal evidence. Israelis will tell you that increasingly fewer children and university students are learning Arabic, and of those who are, fewer are taking it seriously.
Prof. Spolsky recalls one of his doctoral students going, as he was wont, to a left-wing "Peace Now" demonstration. The student began chatting, in fluent Arabic, to another demonstrator. The student's friends were aghast, and pulled to him one side. "Don't do that," they hissed at him. "People will think you're Shabak (from the intelligence service)." The reason? The wide assumption is that young people would only have that standard of Arabic if they were working for the military or the security services.

There is a similar picture among Palestinians. Yasser al-Khateeb runs a centre for academic and vocational training in Hebron. A dwindling number of his students are choosing to learn Hebrew. The reason echoes from that letter of the 1820s. There had been a great incentive to study Hebrew when there was a much bigger chance of securing a job the other side of the Green Line, inside Israel. But after the eruption of the second Intifada, at the start of the decade, the Israeli government erected the separation barrier and checkpoints, which have heavily curtailed movement into Israel. "These days," says Mr. Khateeb, "people prefer to learn English rather than Arabic. In any case, they find English easier."

Mr. Khateeb and Prof Spolsky agree that it is a shame that fewer people are learning the language of the other side. But, tellingly, they also readily concede the limits of that ambition.
"Let's think of Northern Ireland," Prof. Spolsky told me. "They spoke English on both sides. That didn't make them friendly. Language follows rather than leads. It's sad. I'm someone who encourages language-learning. But being able to speak someone's language doesn't make you like them."

Mr Khateeb puts it in similarly stark terms. "Even if I spoke Hebrew, and tried to communicate with Jews, the other side is solid," he said. "The other day, there was what, the 20th meeting between Abbas and Olmert? They talk and talk, and it's utterly useless."

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