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English: Does the teacher speak it?!

After nine years of language classes, too many Israelis can't say "across the street and two blocks past the post office"

At some point during a recent exchange with Bezeq regarding why 40mb of internet actually means 15mb in the “new math”, I realized that pressing the 3 key for an English speaker was probably the most optimistic thing I had done since making aliyah. A recent Times of Israel article has shown me that even Israeli English teachers may agree with me. The article references a poll by the Youth Renewal Fund, an Israeli NGO, in which 67% of the teachers surveyed said that English instruction in Israel is only at a reasonable level. 16% of the teachers said the level of English instruction is low, and a further 13% said the level of English instruction is high. The last 4% answered “Da”.

The comments to the article were particularly telling. One person questions why the average age of teachers who are native English speakers is 50 years old. I don’t know if that figure is accurate, but I could understand why this might be the case. A possible starting salary of barely above minimum wage? Ain’t nobody got time for that! Unsurprisingly, given the lack of financial remuneration, 77% of teachers are in the profession because “they love to teach”, according to the survey. Another commenter asks why only one of the courses required to be certified in English is actually taught in English. While Tanach, Modern Israeli history, and Hebrew literature are all important, it’s not exactly something I need my kids to get from their English teacher.

I was lucky, in that my daughter actually had a native English speaker when she started English classes in third grade. Apparently, only 18% of teachers in the subject are native speakers. But after a year, we decided to switch to a private English for English speakers program to make sure that she gets enough practice to make her feel comfortable with speaking in public. I have too many interactions with Israelis where I am asking Pimsleur I level questions, and I see a deer in headlights look. If after 9 years of English classes, you are confused by “Where is the bus station?”, then what was the point?!

Don’t get me wrong. I realize I live in a society where the main language is Hebrew, and that my lack of it is a hindrance. But, other countries are managing to teach kids English on a level high enough to actually work in the field, so why not Israel? My husband swears that when he pushes the 3 key for Meuhedet’s customer service line, he’s speaking to someone in India. India can teach kids better English than Israel?! I highly doubt that. I’m starting to wonder if it’s all really just a secret plan by the Israeli government to prevent “brain drain” and to staunch the number of Israeli teens who infest American malls during the Christmas shopping season.

So, what can be done? First, English studies need to be taken a lot less seriously. Yes, that’s right: less seriously. The Israelis with whom I am able to hold a high level conversation do not credit their schoolwork. Instead, they say that they learned English from movies, television, and music. So, let’s bring American culture into the classroom a couple of hours a week. Believe me, it couldn’t hurt. The alternative would be to actually make teaching English a palatable alternative for native speakers, by dropping most, if not all, of the Hebrew language requirements, and possibly upping the wages. Additionally, there could be assistants in each classroom who only speak in English, to create an immersive environment. This could either be handled by parent volunteers, or by having parents pay an extra fee. Honestly, a small investment which leads to a child being able to function in English is incredibly worth it, given how much of the job market will require English going forward.

About the Author
Malynnda Littky made aliyah to Israel in 2007 from Oak Park, Michigan, and recently moved from Mitzpe Yericho to Hadera with her four children. She is currently employed as the Marketing Manager for SafeBlocks, a blockchain application security solutions provider.