Tongue-tied ?

Perspectives on English as the international language of science

There is no argument that English has taken a firm hold as the language of modern science. How far should non-English speaking countries go to maintain their own languages ?

Several days ago I came across an article in Israel's online Ynet news (belonging to the daily Yediot Achronot newspaper) by Shachar Chai, discussing a decision by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to allow doctoral theses in English. The bulk of this article, however, addresses the bitterness of the President of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Professor Moshe Bar Asher, with this decision.

I heartily agree with the idea to allow writing in English. For me, this gets close and personal so I say "better late than never". I received my doctorate from the Hebrew University in 1998, after a protracted battle for permission to write it in English. A timely retirement of the equivalent of Graduate Studies Dean paved the way for a younger, and more receptive one who acquiesced to my request.

Why does Prof Bar Asher deny the infiltration of English into the Hebrew University? He was quoted as saying: "Placing English on the same level as Hebrew is a sharp deviation from the course set by the university's founders. This should be insisted upon precisely because of the Hebrew language's erosion."

I can certainly understand the desire to maintain Hebrew as a viable, evolving and active language especially after 2,000 years of use, almost exclusively in prayer. Yet, having said that, I can't help wondering how rational the fear of "eroding Hebrew" really is. It's true that unlike English, Spanish, French, German, Arabic and even Portuguese, Hebrew is spoken almost exclusively by the ~8 million Israelis in Israel. But the same can be said for Finnish, Swedish, Italian and most other languages. And do these countries force their doctoral candidates to write their theses in their native tongues? Perhaps they may allow it, but I've encountered a multitude of theses/dissertations from many different countries in English. Isn't the whole point of a doctoral dissertation to disseminate knowledge gained from the research experience? It's hard to do that if it's written in Hebrew, Swahili, Finnish or Hungarian.

I suspect that the desire to maintain theses in Hebrew stems in part from a "language inferiority complex"; since modern Hebrew is a relatively new language, developed for modern use and spoken only in the last century, the miracle of its existence is still fresh. I cannot help thinking that the history of Jews being persecuted over so many centuries, and the enormity of the horrors of the Holocaust, might weigh heavily on Prof Bar Asher's shoulders.

I do believe that Hebrew needs to be preserved, with new words invented to keep the language active and evolving, as all languages must to survive. After all, there was no television, computer, radio or refrigerator 115 years ago. Twenty years ago there was no internet, email, blog, or text message. But introducing new terms and words to meet growing technological demands is something that needs to be done at the level of schoolchildren and adolescents. It is well known that the brain is far more receptive to languages at an earlier age, and this is the optimal time to instill a deep respect for the Hebrew (and any other developing) language.

At university, not only is this no longer practical, but it also becomes a barrier. Lectures by international scientists are always in English. Graduate students need to be trained to read, write and talk in English. In Israel, students aspire to postdoctoral positions, which always require high proficiency in English, no matter what country they choose for this training. If a student writes her/his thesis in Hebrew, this will be the last time ever that he/she writes a scientific body of work in a language other than English. Forcing students to write their thesis in Hebrew is not just a waste of time, but also a sorely missed opportunity for the students to train for their future careers.

The "translation" of highly technical and super-specialised scientific terms to artificial Hebrew expressions serves little purpose in the fight to keep Hebrew from eroding. Terms for new everyday words (blog, internet, text message, etc.) can and should be coined in Hebrew, when possible. But not highly specialised technical terms that are only written in English textbooks or professional journals since they are used by such limited parts of the general population, they will never catch on. Fighting to do this is a losing battle that harms the student in her/his attempt to improve English skills, and it also wastes time, energy, capital and money on the wrong way to maintain Hebrew.

For these reasons, I am very glad that the administration at the Hebrew University has had the good sense to avoid an emotional decision and that they have made a very a rational one that will benefit their students and the scientific community.



Source :, le mercredi 30 janvier 2013





Haut de page