Quebec's language planning policy: Israeli perspective

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Quebec's language planning policy: Israeli perspective
Revue d'aménagement linguistique, 2002

This is an unofficial English translation of "L’aménagement linguistique au Québec : regard d'un Israélien", an article found in a special issue of the OQLF's Revue d'aménagement linguistique published for the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Québec's Charter of the French language in 2002.

By Bernard Spolsky, professor emeritus of English at the Bar-Ilan University and distinguished member of the National Center of Foreign Languages in Washington.

Recently, one of Israel's two English-language daily newspapers, the Jerusalem Post, published in its weekly magazine an in-depth article on the perceived threat that represents, for Hebrew, "one of the noblest achievements of Zionism", the increasingly manifest penetration of English in the sociolinguistic organization of the country. The article brought the attention on the increasing demand regarding the teaching of English: more and more parents in all social layers indeed register their preschool children to private English courses who are expensive and ask for the teaching of this language as of the first school year (Spolsky et Shohamy, 2001). The Israelies strew their speech with English words. English signs are omnipresent. English has invaded universities: even if practically all university courses up to the highest levels are given in Hebrew, most of the manuals of the more advanced levels are in English, as are most publications (and conferences) by university researchers. As, in general, high-tech businesses maintain strong ties with clients and collaborators abroad, English tends to become the language of this field. The presence, and the menace, of English are felt more and more.

In a case where a language like Hebrew, to which one grants a great value at the ideological level, seems threatened from the outside, it is not astonishing that the linguists and personalities under the spotlight are numerous to think of Bill 101 and the methods that Quebec applied in the past twenty-five years to reverse the trend towards English. Periodically, Israeli politicians present bills to proclaim Hebrew the sole official language of the country. Presently, Hebrew shares this title with Arabic only, because a measure was taken soon after the foundation of the State, in 1948, to modify the British policy, which imposed three languages, and gave up English. The last attempt at giving a judicial protection to Hebrew goes back to December 2000: two bills were then rejected.

A Jerusalem Post article mentions that the Quebec law limits the contents broadcasted in English on television and radio and requires that, on a poster, the size of the letters for French words be twice as important than that of the words in another language, and finally evokes the Québec "language police"1. The article then points out that a militant attitude does not attract many supporters in Israel. It quotes the president of the Academy of the Hebraic language, professor Moshe Bar-Asher, who is opposed to legislative interventions to defend the language. He estimates that coercion is likely to produce undesirable results and that the problem is cultural rather than legal. Atill, a few years ago, the Academy protested before the Minister of Education against a plan aiming at adding one hour of English course in certain schools.

The reluctance to follow the Quebec model deserves a closer look. Hebrew is probably a unique example of the successful revitalization and revernacularisation of a language not spoken nor transmitted from generation to generation for nearly 2000 years (Spolsky and Shohamy, 1999). In 1890, the first middle Hebrew schools open in a handlful of Jewish agricultural colonies in Ottoman Palestine. Twenty-five years later, Hebrew is so well established as the public language of the Jewish community of Palestine that a proposal aiming at making German the language of use in the sciences courses of a projected institute of tertiary technology was demolished. Hebrew was really the fundamental symbol of the revival of Jewish nationalism, and its rebirth was a centre piece of the Zionist ideology. In the first years of the British Mandate, and especially from 1923 to 1936, an energetic campaign for Hebrew was carried out in the Jewish community of Palestine against its two principal enemies, Yiddish and English. The British government placed education in the hands of communities: the Arabs used Arabic in their own schools and the Jews employed only Hebrew in their schools and universities.

To be translated

After the proclamation of the state in 1948, the Jewish population, who speaks mostly Hebrew, was repeatedly overwhelmed by waves of immigrants who did not speak the language. The Hebrew ideological hegemony is strong enough to withstand the pressure, and most immigrants go to Hebrew. In recent years, however, many important changes have taken place. The first is certainly the gradual weakening of the Zionist ideology: many people say that we are now in a post-Zionist period. The second is the penetration of English associated with globalization: radio and television, trade, tourism, global digital world. The third is related to the nature of more recent immigration. The English-speaking immigrants who arrived en masse in the 1970s came by choice, bringing with them a language, culture and skills highly valued. For the first time, a group of immigrants speak a language that can claim a higher status than Hebrew. The dismantling of the Soviet Union led a wave of 800,000 Russian-speaking immigrants, too convinced of the richness of their language and culture, who have built a cultural life based on the Russian side. Children of immigrants in English and Russian languages ​​learn to speak fluent Hebrew (Donitsa-Schmidt, 1999), but they often retain, as their parents, satisfactory or add a bilingual English, very professional looking (and Kheimets Epstein, 2001), which threatens monolingual Hebrew. In recent years also, we have become more sensitive to the significant minority of Arabic, which speaks that language at home and in the community (Amara, 1999). Other major ethnic groups also maintain their own language: Hasidic sects, who are working to restore the Yiddish as the language of children (Isaacs, 1999), recent Jewish immigrants from North Africa, who lived in France long enough to develop an attachment to French (Ben-Rafael, 1994), a laege group of Ethiopians whose integration has been extremely slow, and hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from non-Jews from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America who continue to live in gated communities, but whose children fall gradually in the school system.

Although the official policy of the Department of Education (Ministry of Education, 1996) is in favor of keeping the language of immigrants and ethnic languages, in practice, the language used in schools of Jewish children is Hebrew and English. The main foreign language taught to be Arabic is taught half-heartedly. In Arab schools, attended by about 20% of the Israeli population, Arabic is the language of instruction, and teaches Hebrew and English. The only real exception is the many community schools, in the afternoon, teaching mathematics and literature, Russian immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

So we can say that in this context of increasing pluralism, multilingualism is increasingly accepted and there is a clear opening to languages ​​other than Hebrew. For the purists and those who hold to the old ideology, these changes are positive and seem to pose a serious threat to Hebrew. Nobody believes that this language will disappear, as all studies show that the second generation of all groups of immigrants speaks Hebrew and the Hebrew transmission from one generation to another is assured. Revitalization and revernacularisation of Hebrew are things done (Spolsky and Shohamy, 2000). However, what many people fear is that Hebrew be removed from office and important areas. In other words, they fear that Hebrew had to be relegated to the status before Yiddish, a language that at home. As in the traditional shtetl of Eastern Europe, where the Hebrew-Aramaic was the language of literacy (Weinreich, 1980), they fear that one day replace English Hebrew in a society diglossic. No doubt these concernshelp those who wish to emulate the model of language planning in Quebec.

Interestingly, a minority group has taken the legal way not to defend the dominance of Hebrew but to attack it. For several years now, a small organization of Arab civil liberties, Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, has tried to establish the interpretation of the language law by trying to include Arabic in public display. The first act was on the signs containing the names of streets in Haifa, written in Hebrew and English. Without a court order, the municipality of Haifa has agreed to add Arabic. The organization then challenged a law requiring the presence of Nazareth in Hebrew in any public posting. The court concluded, without any reference to the official status of Arabic, that an advertiser has the right to display a poster in any language. It is only recently that a court has acknowledged a request that the Arabic on all road signs. The reluctance of courts to defer to the language law is explained by their tendency to focus on human rights rather than collective rights, which protect the language against those who do not want to speak it. Adalah's strategy, however, may produce the opposite effect: as a debate on national identity is started, the nationalists still have a chance to win.

The success of Hebrew is primarily due to a popular movement. At a critical stage in its development, its advocates have convinced the British government and the League of Nations to include the Hebrew among the official languages ​​of mandatory Palestine. Its ideology was a well-established rule at the time of creation of the state, so that the Academy of the Hebrew language was based, the need for legal protection of the language has not been felt. Even if Israel and Quebec seem to have a common enemy, their situation is so different that language planning in Quebec had no significant influence in Israel


  • AMARA, Muhammad Hasan (1999). Politics and Sociolinguistic Reflexes : Palestinian Border Villages, Amsterdam et Philadelphie, John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • BEN-RAFAEL, Eliezer (1994). Language, Identity and Social Division : the Case of Israel, Oxford, Clarendon Press.
  • DONITSA-SCHMIDT, Smadar (1999). Language Maintenance or Shift : Determinants of Language Choice among Soviet Immigrants in Israel, Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Toronto, Toronto.
  • ISAACS, Miriam (1999). "Contentious partners : Yiddish and Hebrew in Haredi Israel", in International Journal of the Sociology of Language, issue 138, p. 101-121.
  • KHEIMETS, Nina G. and Alek D. EPSTEIN (2001). "The role of English as a central component of success in the professional and social integration of scientists from the former Soviet Union in Israel", in Language in Society, no 30, p. 187-215.
  • MINISTY OF EDUCATION, CULTURE AND SPORT (1996). Politique pour l’enseignement des langues en Israël (in Hebrew), Jerusalem, Bureau du directeur général.
  • SPOLSKY, Bernard and Elana SHOHAMY (1999). The Languages of Israel : Policy, Ideology and Practice, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.
  • SPOLSKY, Bernard and Elana SHOHAMY (2000). "Hebrew after a century of RLS efforts", in Joshua A. Fishman (ed.), Can Threatened Languages be Saved?, Clevedon, Avon, Multilingual Matters Ltd, p. 349-362.
  • SPOLSKY, Bernard and Elana SHOHAMY (2001). "The Penetration of English as language of science and technology into the Israeli linguistic repertoire: a preliminary inquiry", in Ulrich Ammon ed.), The Dominance of English as Language of Science : Effects on Other Languages and Language Communities, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter.
  • WEINREICH, Max (1980). History of the Yiddish language, (Fishman & Shlomo Noble Joshua A, Trad.), Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

See also


1. It should be noted that the case of a Quebec casher butcher who, a few years back, would have been given some troubles because of a Hebrew poster, is often cited in Israel.

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