March 27, 2005

Hebrew Revival

Amritas has a couple of posts up where he talks about language revival. The bottom line: "language revival is indeed possible, but only if a complex set of factors are in place". Here are the reasons Amritas gives for the success of Hebrew's revival:

For one thing, Hebrew had no Goliath-class competitor in Palestine at the time. Even pre-Holocaust Yiddish was not to Hebrew what English is to Cherokee, Irish, etc. today.

Second, Hebrew had functional value: it united (and still unites) Jews with different native languages. But Cherokee, Irish, etc. already have English as a common language. It enables them not only to communicate within their nations and with each other, but with many people around the world.

Third, Hebrew had religious value. I presume that Cherokee have lost or are losing their native religion - whereas the Irish could still remain Catholic in English without a word of Gaeilge.

I recommend Benjamin Harshav's Language in Time of Revolution (sic; via Joel at Far Outliers), a study of the Hebrew revival. It deflates various myths about the revival. Hype was around back then too.

I have talked a little about the issue before:

We often hear about the miracle of rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language. It was miraculous, but in a slightly different way than is usually thought. The story goes that Eliezer Ben Yehuda “almost single-handedly” created Modern Hebrew from a dead language. Without diminishing the greatness of Ben Yehuda, this is simply not true. He was the leader of a movement which included a lot of people, but more important: Hebrew was never dead. Hebrew was the literary and intellectual language of the Jewish people throughout its history. Though it was nobody’s first language from about 500 to 1882 CE, when Benzion, Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s first son, was born, an enormous number of poems were written in it as well as works of prose, intellectual and rabbinical literature, even science. In this way it resembles many of the world’s languages: Latin in Medieval times, Sanskrit throughout most of its history, and Modern Standard Arabic. The birth of European national languages in the 18th century as literary languages led, eventually, to the demise of Latin. If it were not for the birth of Israel, the same movement would have led to the demise of Hebrew too. Today, few Jews outside of Israel know Hebrew. The miracle of Modern Hebrew is that it was created by the last generation that could have done it. One more generation and it would have been too late.

But even though I can list (some) reasons for its success, I really don't understand it. I still find it next to miraculous - in keeping with the the recent theme of Purim. (I haven't read the book that Amritas recommends, but I did spend some time previewing the book at the Amazon site looking for the reasons for Modern Hebrew's success - without any luck. I'd really like to know about the myths the book deflates. As far as I know, I don't believe any myths...) It is likely that graduates of Jewish day schools in the US approximate the language proficiency of Jews in Ben Yehuda's generation. In my experience this description from Amritas's post could apply to them:

What I have heard from one immersion teacher (anecdotal, I know) is that kids in her immersion classes even after several years still made elementary grammatical mistakes in their second language. I found that absolutely shocking. Perhaps those children in that specific program were fluent in the sense that they had perfect understanding of the target language and could generate comprehensible (but still ungrammatical) utterances with ease. That is admittedly far more than most North American foreign language students can do, so it is no mean feat, but many will erroneously assume that those students' 'fluency' entails 'balanced bilingualism' (equal proficiency in all aspects of both languages). It does not:

... [S]econd language skills of immersion students differ in noticeable ways from that of native speakers. For instance, immersion students appear to perform at comparable levels in tests of second language reading and listening comprehension, but they do not perform as well as native speakers in tests of production skills. Further, second language learners’ grammar in the target language tends to be less complex and less redundant than that of native speakers. It is also influenced by the grammar of their first language. Finally, their second language usage is decidedly less idiomatic than that of native speakers.

Again, that is still superior to most North American language learners.

In other words, they have achieved what I might call second-language fluency: they can express themselves fluently in the sense that they can communicate what they want, and understand what they hear, but they still make the kinds of mistakes that are typical of second-language speakers. (I think anyone who knows a second-language speaker of any language will know what I'm talking about.)  I can attest that even after years of speaking Hebrew, I can still make "elementary grammatical mistakes", especially when I'm tired or distracted, that a native speaker would never make. It's an odd thing, because I also have an instinct for what "sounds right" that I can rely on, it just doesn't seem to work 100% of the time, at least not as fast as I need it to. It's hard to learn a second language!

But Israelis today speak without the kind of grammatical mistakes that second-language speakers make. They get gender right, they correctly form irregular plurals, their speech is fully redundant (i.e. agreement of gender and number of nouns, verbs, and adjectives). How did this happen, when I assume that almost none of the founding generation were able to do it with fluency? True, Modern Hebrew is simplified in some ways: phonologically, and in a few points of grammar (most notably, possessive pronoun suffixes are far less frequently used than they once were - but they have by no means disappeared).

Most Israelis my age are second or third generation Hebrew speakers. I don't know if it is possible any more to answer all the questions - but I'd like to know more!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at March 27, 2005 08:15 PM
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Hmm, but it's an kind of an oversimplification to say that 'most Jews outside of Israel' don't know Hebrew - a very large amount ( I think the majority ) of Jews in Western Europe are incredibly fluent. I swear they speak Hebrew better than Russian immigrants who have been in Israel for years.

Posted by: Melnorme at March 28, 2005 12:03 AM Permalink

Ok I'll forward this post to my (prejudice) Hebrew teacher *after* I finish the course :p

Posted by: Maria at March 28, 2005 02:06 AM Permalink

So many things to say, I'll never remember them all.
First I love Hebrew grammar, especially the verbs/binyanim active, passive and reflexive. Wonderful structure.
Second for the last 50 years or more, child psychologists have instructed parents and educators not to correct grammar, so the level in most languages has deteriorated.
Next (I'm an EFL-English as a Foreign Language teacher.) Recent trends have been to encourage fluency over accuracy, meaning that a person's comfort and confidence in speaking is the aim.

And when you're talking about "most Jews" you have to include the "disengaged" assimilated etc, so the level of Hebrew knowledge is very poor, frequently zero. What gets me riled, is that graduates of American full-time Jewish education are rarely fluent in Hebrew. I'm convinced that it's due to the fact that parents don't want their kids to feel comfortable in Israel. I left a NY public school education fluent in Spanish with far less exposure to the language than the Jewish kids get to Hebrew in the day schools. And I'm not good at languages!

Posted by: muse at March 28, 2005 05:59 AM Permalink

Do you know what I find amazing? It ties in nicely w this post, I think abt it often and have promised myself I'd blog abt it but well, still haven't: when Hebrew was adopted as THE language, EVERYONE spoke it w an accent, everyone. And today, decades later, there IS a standard Hebrew. How did that happen, how did it get filtered and condensed so fast?

Posted by: Lioness at April 1, 2005 04:58 PM Permalink

The teaching of Hebrew in diaspora Jewish schools has been remarkably ineffective for a number of reasons. One, although there are some shining exceptions, many of the teachers are not professionally trained as teachers of a modern foreign language. It has been common to employ them because they are shlichim, the spouses (usually wives) of shlichim, they come from Israel as trained primary teachers etc. They often bring with them models of ulpan based Hebrew language teaching which are designed for immersion environments in Israel but are completely unsuited to limited teaching hourage where the only context in which they are likely to hear Hebrew is in synagogue. The teachers are often paid on lower scales and do not regard themselves as fully part of the staff for training programs etc. In any case, in diaspora schools, there is also an obligation to teach Hebrew for religious purposes, ie to read prayerbooks and the Chumash etc, and this is rarely integrated with the teaching of modern Hebrew. In schools, they are usually linked to departments of Jewish studies rather than the other modern language departments. I am a school inspector and have often seen situations where there is very good interactive teaching of modern languages other than Hebrew, using communicative methodology (ie the students are repeatedly made to communicate with each other in the language). Yet the Hebrew teachers spend their time teaching vocabulary lists, limited grammar tables and churning through textbooks which do not engage their pupils. There is also often the view that only Israel is the source of expertise in how to teach Hebrew in schools (when its expertise is in how to teach Hebrew in Israel) and only native Hebrew speakers are credible advisers (which excludes experts in the teaching of other modern foreign languages). An even greater irony is that now there is usually a very significant proportion of Israeli expatriate children in most diaspora Jewish schools,especially in the US, the UK, Europe and the UK Commonwealth countries. These children are often showcased to show the supposed success of the Hebrew teaching when the school is inspected...Actually, there is far too little development work being done on how best to help those children develop and sustain their Hebrew first language skills.

As for how Hebrew became a truly "native" first language, I think Chomsky's famous "innate grammatical capacity" theory of language acquisition grew out of his original (PhD?) study which attempted to explore that question in relation to how Hebrew came to be re-established. His father was a famous Hebraist. Chomsky the son posited that all children are born with an innate capacity to acquire, produce the inherent sounds of and make grammatical sense of a first language, by reference to which all subsequent languages are then added. Thus although the first native modern Hebrew speakers heard only accented and faulty Hebrew, their innate capacity enabled them to produce the correct forms and a distinctive native pronunciation, regardless of the particular accents or degree of expertise of their parents. Clearly the establishment of schools which modelled and taught ideal forms was crucial, but the schools did not provide the models for the emergence of the distinctive adoptions of modern Hebrew, eg saying "lama" rather than "madua". It's very interesting to read the autobiographies of people like Amos Oz where they comment on their childhood recognition of the errors or howlers their often erudite and pedantic Hebraist parents or teachers made. Oz is particularly satirical on Menachem Begin's oratory in this respect.

Posted by: Judy at April 3, 2005 07:41 PM Permalink

It is amazing, and I do feel it's a miracle - David did not overstate it at all.

Muse: you may be right, but I just wanted to point out that Spanish is very close to English, while Hebrew is not at all.

Posted by: Alisa at April 3, 2005 07:44 PM Permalink

This Item has been brought to my attention. Have a look at my book:
Kuzar, Ron (2001). Hebrew and Zionism: A Discourse Analytic Cultural Study. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
It contains an extensive critique of all views about the emergence ("revival") of Hebrew, including a critique of Harshav, and a suggestion to view the emergence of Israeli Hebrew within the discourse of the emergence of Pidgin-Creole languages. Shocking? Give it a try.
Ron Kuzar
University of Haifa

Posted by: Ron Kuzar at April 4, 2005 09:23 PM Permalink

Ron: Thank you for your suggestions. I suppose there is some similarity between the situation of 1st generation Hebrew speakers, who (I'm guessing) according to this theory would have incomplete linguistic exposure, and 1st generation Creole speakers. I would certainly be interested in looking at your book, if I could find it for a reasonable price ($80 is kind of high for me). At the moment, I don't have any particular linguistic framework for understanding the "emergence" of Modern Hebrew, but regarding your suggestion, my first question is: if Modern Hebrew should be seen as a Creole, why is it so similar to Mishnaic Hebrew, and so unlike most Creoles (e.g. marking tense rather than aspect, complex morphology, etc.)?

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at April 4, 2005 10:02 PM Permalink

Here's a link from Ron's site to a page about the book.

Here's a link to an excerpt.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at April 4, 2005 10:49 PM Permalink

I'm reminded of studies I've read about American Sign Language. There are many instances in history of deaf children being thrown together and forced to try to use oral languages, which of course is a recipe for misery among the deaf (especially those born deaf). So in most of these cases, the children, having no other way to communicate, would just invent signs, but there would be no grammar, just simplistic symbolizing.

In the next generation, however -- when those children grew up and had children -- the children who grew up watching their parent sign in a GRAMMARLESS language actually invented their own grammar (thanks to the innate grammar-sense we all have, as Chomsky said), and thus the second generation in these deaf communities would employ a fully mature, grammatical language using the grammarless signs of their parents. It's sort of a linguistic truism: it takes two generations to invent a language, and I imagine that's what happened with Ivrit.

Posted by: Marissa at April 5, 2005 05:28 PM Permalink

Marissa: If that is what happened with Hebrew, then how do you explain that the grammar which the 2nd generation invented just happened to be the same as Mishnaic grammar?

BTW, Here is a good example of deaf inventing their own language.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at April 5, 2005 06:29 PM Permalink

Also, even in the first generation, invented languages are not grammarless, they are just not fully expressive.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at April 5, 2005 06:38 PM Permalink

I think Amritas neglects to mention the most important reason that the Hebrew could be revived: it coincided with immigration. When one immigrates, one changes various aspects of one's life, one is cut off from various social frameworks that a person belongs to, and one has to make great changes to one's life. It is easier in these circumstances to acquire a different language. You rightly point out that Hebrew existed before as a literary language, and there had been a Hebrew revival movement independent of Zionism (YL Gordon, Avraham Mapu and others). But Hebrew could not get off the ground outside of Israel, because the target audience was not made up of immigrants. Ireland makes a good comparison: the Irish nationalism was no less ardent than Zionism but they could not revive Gaelic successfully.

I actually think that role of Hebrew as uniting various ethnic groups is a weak argument. Hebrew had became the language of the Yishuv by the 20s, when Eastern European Jews were as dominant as British immigrants in the 13 colonies were in the 18th century, and could have chosen to make Yiddish the national language. Most mizrahi immigrants arrived after Hebrew had already been established.

If you're interested, here's an article about Ben-Yehuda (in Hebrew). I commented there as well.

Posted by: Danny at April 5, 2005 07:01 PM Permalink

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