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Why all Israelis need to know Arabic

It's an official state language, every neighboring country speaks it, and it's (relatively) easy to learn

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About a month ago I began teaching English to Arab elementary school students in Tira (an Israeli-Arab village). Presenting myself to the class for the first time, I wrote my name in English, Hebrew and Arabic. I explained in Arabic that I’m Jewish and have been studying Arabic for the past few years. There were some whispers and surprised faces.

“Can you write my name in Arabic?” one girl asked. The girl’s eyes grew wide as I wrote her name. Pretty quickly the kids were all begging me to write their names in Arabic with puppy dog eyes as if they wanted candy.

Why were Arab fifth graders so surprised that I know Arabic? Isn’t it a “no brainer”? Every country that we have a land border with speaks it. It is the official language of most countries in the Middle East and one of the official languages of Israel. This means that we don’t have to teach multiple foreign languages in our school system. Only Arabic and, naturally, English (in order to be a part of global society in which English is the lingua franca). In addition Hebrew and Arabic are sister Semitic languages. This makes it even easier to teach them together. The words in both languages are built of roots (often the same), the grammar is almost identical and many words in Arabic have entered Hebrew slang. I’m not even asking for students to learn literary Arabic, which is more complicated, only colloquial dialect. We must also keep in mind that Arab students in the Israeli education system are required to study a lot of Hebrew, including literature, while Jewish students are not.

Despite all of these compelling reasons, Jewish Israeli students are not learning Arabic. Instead of it being a mandatory subject, it is an optional one with low demand (only five out of 290 students in my high school 12th grade class in Raanana chose to study Arabic). But the situation is much worse outside of the school system. Instead of teaching the language, it seems like there is an attempt to make it disappear. Walk into a Steimatzky book store in Raanana and you will be stared at for asking if there are books in Arabic. So you try the library. You walk past the bookshelves of English, Russian and French books only to be told by the librarian there are none in Arabic.

This is a problem. Language is much more than vocabulary and grammar. Language is a gateway to understanding culture, religion, literature, film, music and mindset. To give just one example, it is through proverbs that we understand the values a society cherishes. And it is this fact that brings me to the sad conclusion that there is an attempt to marginalize not only Arabic language but culture. This is unfortunate.

Arab culture is rich with history, music, literature and art. By understanding Arab culture we can better understand our neighbors, their values and beliefs. This is essential for our continued existence in the region.

In June 2014 the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted against a “modest” bill by MKs Issawi Frej (Meretz), Yariv Levin (Likud Beytenu) and Moshe Mizrachi (Labor) that would make Arabic a required subject for high school students. In 2015 another bill was submitted to implement the teaching of Arabic in Jewish schools starting at first grade.The bill points out that Arabic is an official language of Israel and appears on road signs and names of public institutions. According to the bill, this has nothing to do with political opinion, whether you are right or left, but will encourage security and communication and can serve as a bridge between people.

The bill is a great initiative but judging from the past has little hope of passing. It seems unlikely that a country which is supposed to offer the choice of studying Arabic in middle school (along with French) by law but barely enforces this will suddenly require studying it in first grade along with the Hebrew alphabet. Even English language study in which high school students are required to take a Bagrut exam commences in 3rd grade and not in 1st. Because of the ingrained objection to the study of Arabic, we need a slow and steady change. This should start in middle school. Although French is a beautiful language (I am actually studying it right now), students should be required to study Arabic because we live in the Middle East (even though walking down the street in my hometown of Raanana the many “olim” from France may delude us). Furthermore the introduction to Arabic needs to be done by great teachers and should focus on speaking (using audio: songs, dialogue and film) and culture instead of a sole focus on grammar which tends to bore students. Let’s commit to this first.

Have I managed to convince you that learning Arabic is important? I hope so. But let’s take this a step further. A while back I found a fun, easy way to learn some spoken Arabic (Palestinian dialect). This is a show from “chinuchit” (Israel’s educational channel) that teaches basic Arabic to a group of students (including some celebrities like Ehud Manor). Each video focuses on a topic (e.g., blessings, the family, in the market etc.) The wonderful teacher, Kamal Rayan, includes a culture section and is always highlighting the similarities between Hebrew and Arabic. Give it a shot! It’s free: Spoken Arabic TV Show

This post has been updated to correct a mistaken assertion about the origins of Hebrew.

About the Author
Anat is a language-lover fluent in Hebrew, English and Arabic. She is also a news junkie and a bookworm.
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