Ecolinguism in Israel: Another place where languages go to die

How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?
How many languages can Israel allow to flourish?

The modern State of Israel recognizes two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic. Nearly all of its Jewish citizens came from somewhere else within the last 2-3 generations. When these immigrants came, they brought their language. Pressure from Israeli society eliminated the vast majority of their languages.

While 49% of Israelis over 20 claim Hebrew as their native language, according to Wikipedia, 18% claim Arabic, and 15% Russian. The other 18% speak Yiddish, French, English, Spanish, and “Other” languages, which include Romanian, German, and Amharic.

The language picture is more complex than at first glance. A language may include multiple dialects, each living its own dynamic. Some of the last speakers of certain language dialects live in Israel. Active violence has also taken place against other languages.

As Hebrew was chosen as the official language, its proponents put in place a system that does not give other languages space to live and grow.

Let’s look at a few of the examples of languages in Israel today.
Language survival

Language love in Miami

Miami Beach, Florida Trilingual sign, English,...
Miami Beach, Florida Trilingual sign, English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spent last weekend in Miami for an academic conference. I was amazed at the variety of languages I ran into in four days: SPANISH, Haitian Creole, Arabic, and Portuguese.

Truly multi-lingual city

First, Spanish was everywhere. Miami is the only truly bilingual city in the US I’ve ever seen. Really, it seemed everyone spoke Spanish and people just seemed to take it for granted. Our Palestinian friends spoke Spanish in the cafes. When I got on the Metrorail, an older gentleman asked me in Spanish if the current train went to his stop. I have never had anyone assume I know Spanish, so this was surprising. A young African-American man answered him, albeit in English. Needless to say, he understood the older gentleman’s question. The assumption that everyone knew some Spanish pervaded the city.

Public places also reflected this assumption. I walked down Miracle Mile, a high-end shopping district (with an uncanny amount of wedding shops). I heard more Spanish among shoppers and employees than I heard English. When I poked my head into a big chain book store, about one-fourth of the books were in Spanish. I likewise spent some time in the public library, and the proportion was about the same. I could speak Spanish anywhere I went.

Second, I saw a fair amount of Haitian Creole, though I only heard it once or twice. Signs at the library, grocery store, and public transportation had signs in Creole along with Spanish. I spoke standard French the times I did hear it, and it seemed to work fine. I was happy to find that Google Translator has Creole, which allowed me some fun at the Metro stop, so as I waited for my train to depart, I used Translator to translate the Creole posters.

Third, I spoke a surprising amount of Arabic. The conference took place in a Palestinian church, so many of the folks around–men driving us, women cooking for us–were Arab immigrants. They really appreciated having a “white” guy speaking Arabic with them. They even asked me where I was born, probably trying to figure out if maybe I had an obvious reason for speaking Arabic.

Fourth, I ran into a small amount of Portuguese. Many Palestinians fled to South America after the creation of the state of Israel, so the church included several members who were born in Brazil. I also heard it on the street.

View of a multilingual US?

Could Miami represent the future of the US? Enough immigrants and even second-generation citizens who speak multiple languages seem to have tipped the balance. I don’t think anyone in Miami is purely monolingual, if the young folks on public transportation can understand Spanish, if the older people can assume they’ll get an answer when they ask a white guy like me a question in Spanish.

Even though life in Miami is far from perfect, I appreciate how Miami has an advantage over Minnesota. I can see that people speaking each other’s language does not necessarily mean that people will live in harmony. Cubans frustrate the Arabs, and the Haitians annoy the Cubans, etc. No one is invisible, however. Unlike in Minnesota, where no Mexican would ever approach me with a Spanish question, many Latinos simply have no voice. The lack of knowledge in the average Minnesotan relegates the non-English speaker to irrelevance. In this way, the Miami Latino has advantages over the one from Minneapolis. Even if one may not like what the Miamian says, at least you have to deal with it.

What would a multi-lingual US look like? Would it look like Canada? Ireland? India? South Africa?

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Holding to core values, suspended between two worlds

Ramesch with his stepdaughter: What will all these cultures produce in her?
Ramesch with his stepdaughter: What will all these cultures produce in her?

This post continues new category of posts, called “Language Dignity,” wherein I seek to interact with and learn from those who are bilingual (or trilingual) in the US. I hope their stories will grant dignity to their languages and cultures, and teach Americans more about the people around them.  For the previous post in this series please go to From Spanish to Latino: New identities formed in the USA and Trilingual in the USA: Staying connected to roots in India.

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Ramesch met his Minnesotan wife in his home country of Singapore.  He grew up in that island’s mix of Chinese, Malay, South Indian, and British culture and language, before he immigrated to the monolingual US.  Ramesch’s family, like most of the Indians there, comes from the South of the India.  But while one hears the Tamil language spoken often in the street, Ramesch’s native language is English; he grew up speaking almost exclusively English at home.  He has always found himelf between cultures, whether in Singapore or in the US, because half of his mind rests in India, even though he has never lived there.

The cultural mix of Singapore

People adapt and borrow from each other’s culture.  Singapore’s students all learn English–of the British variety–in school, so this is their common language.  The Chinese are known to be more reserved in their interactions, and Indians, louder and more expressive.  In business interactions, though, Ramesch explained that the Chinese try to express themselves more and the Indians would have to “tone down” their behavior

His ways of communicating look Indian.  His animated way of expressing himself even alarms his step-daughter and wife on occasion; he seems angry, when he only feels excited.  “Everyone asks why I’m so mad,” he lamented.

Religious beliefs also get mixed in Singapore.  For example, in Singapore the number “eight” could be good luck (Chinese) or bad luck (Indian).  Ramesch came to the US knowing how to negotiate cultures.

In and out of Indian culture

Even though Ramesch is third generation Singaporian, he identifies strongly with India.  He, like many Indians, imagine India as “baradama,” the homeland.  They long for a “return” to India; he equates this to others’ cultural longings: “like a Jew, Israel is always home.”  He loves Indian culture and language, even though he’s only been to India twice.  He spoke English at home, but he nevertheless worked hard at learning his ancestral language, Tamil.  As a teenager, his friends made fun of his broken Tamil, but he got to a point where he could speak it well, though often it goes through a stage of English translation.

Living here in the US, he does not fit exactly into the role of a “typical” Indian.  He converted to Christianity, even though his great-grandfather was a Hindu brahman.  Nevertheless, his morals and values come from his Indian culture.  He and his white, Minnesotan wife receive a lot of attention from other Indians.  For example, when they were in the hospital giving birth to  their second child, they found themselves across the hall from a South Indian couple who would often stare at them.  Ramesch and his wife knew, though, that these looks were not disapproving, but “genuine curiosity.”  At work, Ramesch’s North Indian colleagues expect him to respond to their Hindi, the Indian lingua franca, even though Ramesch never learned it in Singapore.

Raising American children

As he negotiates Indian, Singaporian, and US culture, Ramesch consciously tries to extract the best of all these cultures as he raises his children.  He wants to impart Indian culture to his children, as their heritage, but, at the same time, he recognizes that not all of Indian culture is good.  He is happy that his children are growing up in their US environment.  Ramesch said, “One part of their roots is going to disappear.  On the other hand, it is good that they grow up adapting to this culture the way it is.  They need awareness of where they come from, where I come from, their roots, what I brought over.”  They need to know their present, as well as their past.

He can’t offer them the mix of language and culture that he grew up with, but he insists on teaching them his values–“what I learned as a child.”   While religious celebrations and observances, such as Diwali (the Hindu festival of light) are difficult outside of his home country, he says, “Values are all I can bring over, the only thing that I can adapt.”  He believes in a deep “respect for elders” and “disciplining children at an early age.”  Children need to know the “necessity for hard work.”  Education holds an important place, too, as he said, “Respect for knowledge, respect for books.”  He described that back home he “wouldn’t even put a book on the ground because books are knowledge.”

Mixing the best of different cultures seems to be a trait brought from Singapore.  He translates this experience by teaching his children about what it means to be Indian, educated, and respectful.  He grew up an Indian outside India, and his children will be the same–but what will that mean to them?

Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?

In the past week I heard two stories about Americans who felt that they were squeezed out of a conversation. I think there is a solution.  Learning a language in both instances could ease tensions and foster empathy.

My friend’s coworker, Amy,* notices that she doesn’t get invited to meetings. This worker collaborates with their office in Israel. She noticed that the Israel office, unfortunately, started scheduling meetings at times when she could not be present. They wanted to hold the meeting in Hebrew, and she doesn’t speak Hebrew. This seemed passive-aggressive. She wants to collaborate with her Israeli colleagues, but they stubbornly insist of excluding her by conducting meetings only in Hebrew and avoiding discussing in English.

One friend, Ahmad,* often does work in China. He enjoys going to China and he likes Chinese people. He finds he has a lot in common with them. Because of putting in time with communicating with non-native English speakers, he has a handle on how to adjust his communication style to fit with the situation.

On occasion he feels marginalized. When he is the only non-Chinese speaker at a meeting, the meeting will lapse into Chinese, and someone will translate the gist of the conversation for him. He knows, though, that he is missing nuances and content that could be valuable for him. Why would they speak Chinese around him when they could just as easily speak in English? Were they trying to push him out of the conversation?

Let me take the Israeli and Chinese point of view for a second. I don’t think the problem is an incompatibility between Americans and Chinese or Israeli people.  Speaking a language is hard, even if one wants to order a croissant after studying French for four years. Understanding the response is even harder. Trying results in painful feelings of inferiority. So experiences the Chinese- and Hebrew-speaker at meetings held in English. Granted, ordering a croissant in English may be easy for them, but collaborating on a project, offering ideas in a positive, nuanced way can easily make them feel stupid when it comes out weird or they can’t fully understand the response of their American counterparts.

These Chinese and Israelis likely are not giving Amy and Ahmad the cold shoulder. They may just be anxious or tired. By learning some Chinese or Hebrew and feeling their pain, Amy and Ahmad would display a desire to sympathize with their colleagues.  The Americans could sympathize with their colleagues’ need to switch out of English, if only to let their brains rest, or to express to each other what they’re really trying to say. The more we English-speakers try to learn others’ language, the more they see us open ourselves to their struggles through sympathy.

Have you felt shut out of a meeting?  Have you managed to make your way back in by learning a language?

* Names have been changed.