Multilingualism and policy

“If I had the courage, I’d learn Arabic“

Fotograf: Christoph PetrasFotograf: Christoph PetrasA conversation with the former Israeli ambassador in Germany, Avi Primor, on multilingualism, learning foreign languages and languages one wished one could speak.

When someone operates as a diplomat on the international scene it is more or less mandatory for them to be multilingual. Does one only feel a diplomat if one has mastery of a number of languages?

Many diplomats do not speak any other foreign languages than English and French. For example, many of my colleagues among the ambassadors in Germany couldn’t speak German. Most of them speak their mother tongue and American. Some can speak other languages because they’ve been all over the place. But many have resigned themselves to only being able to communicate with officials of the German Foreign Office. I think this is a pity. Language is not only language, it is culture, a way of life.

When you came to Germany as an ambassador, you learned German. Was it difficult?

Learning German was difficult, but the decision to do so was a matter of course for me. I couldn’t imagine operating in Germany without being able to speak the language. I knew that all my predecessors had German as a mother tongue. They had either been born in Germany or in Austria. I was born in Israel and couldn’t speak German. Apart from that, everyone expects an Israeli ambassador in Germany to speak German to enable him to talk to the people here. That is also his mission.

The learning conditions were ideal for you: you were in a German environment and were learning German for a purpose.

I started learning German at the Goethe-Institut in Mannheim. I would have preferred to have learnt it before I took up office, but as state secretary in the Foreign Office I had no time. I then took a month free and travelled to Germany with my family. We landed in Frankfurt. An embassy driver took my wife and son to Bonn and I went directly to Mannheim, where I was holed up for a month learning German from morning till night. In Bonn I then had private lessons practically every day. I always made an effort to speak to Germans, read German newspapers, watch television and so on. This takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s also fun.

Your son attended a German school in Bonn.

There were two reasons for this: firstly this gave him an opportunity to learn German instead of starting right a way with English. He would have learnt English anyway. But in addition I wanted to set the tone for the relations between Israelis and Germans. Israeli diplomats first sent their children to American schools in a deliberate attempt to set themselves apart. I wanted to break with this tradition. I wanted us and the Germans to understand one another and come closer together, and it worked wonderfully. I had no idea that this would also help me so much. We had a lovely house in Bonn where my son often played with his friends. I also got to know their parents, and I frequently invited them round. We made so many friends we would never have met otherwise and in that way I got to know a wide range of different people in Germany, people with different views and mentalities. My son still has friends in Bonn whom he visits, and many come to see us in Tel Aviv. It’s wonderful and that was exactly what we intended.

Fotograf: Christoph PetrasWhat is the situation in Israel with regard to multilingualism? When the state of Israel was founded in 1948 many different languages were being spoken in Israel. Then the political decision was taken to establish Hebrew as the national language. Are there still signs of this today?

My experience has always been that the language of school is always stronger than that of the family. Children grow up with the parents’ mother tongue, but gradually they get to speak only Hebrew. In school they mostly learn English, and only at high school do they learn other languages, primarily Arabic and French. But Arabic tends to be taught as a secondary subject, which is a great pity. English, on the other hand, is taught intensively from the beginning. The language is seen as indispensable. The Internet, films, television, everything’s in English. Children therefore regard languages as a technical means rather than a part of the culture. Last year my son graduated form high school and learned many languages there. This even became his ambition and at home we also encouraged him a little in this. Now he speaks five languages fluently, more than me.

Ideally multilingualism promotes intercultural dialogue. When Israeli children also learn Arabic and are able to converse with Palestinian children in their mother tongue, does this promote intercultural dialogue?

Unfortunately the children do not seriously learn Arabic. And although many Palestinians we are in contact with and over 20 per cent of the Israeli population are non-Jews, mostly Arabs, these speak Hebrew fluently because they need it in their everyday lives. That’s why we don’t feel we have to be able to speak Arabic, although this is completely wrong. After all, Israel is like an island in the Middle East, which is actually an Arab region.

But at the same time it is a component element of Israeli identity to master at least once foreign language?

Yes, we are aware that we won’t get very far with our own language alone; we need foreign languages. This is typical of small countries. Look at the Netherlands, for example. There the people learn foreign languages because they know all too well that in geographical terms they are very restricted by their language.

What role do the identity-giving aspects of Hebrew play today if English is so dominant? Or can English or even bilingualism also provide identity?

English dominates in Israel as much it does in Germany. No more. The Germans speak German and this language is the basis for the Germans. It’s the same with Hebrew for us. When we are among our own kind, we always speak Hebrew. As soon as foreigners are present, we sometimes speak English. But Hebrew is our mother tongue. This is the language with which we feel most at home and which we can speak best.

Fotograf: Christoph PetrasWould you like to learn a further language, and if yes, which?

If I had the courage, I’d learn Arabic. This is in particular an important language for us and an important culture. I very much regret that I didn’t learn Arabic when I was young. At that time no Arabic was taught in schools unfortunately. But I don’t know whether I can still summon up the courage today to learn a further language.

Sven Scherz-Schade

put the questions. He works as a freelance journalist in Berlin.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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