From Cloze to Consequences and Beyond: An Interview
With Elana Shohamy
Anne Lazaraton
University of Minnesota
A: Elana, I’d like to situate our talk as starting from when you did your dissertation here in Minnesota, so to fill in the blanks, could you tell us about your life up until you came to Minnesota to do your Ph.D.? I know you were born in New York.

E: Maybe what is most relevant here and best relates to language and testing is growing up in Israel in the ’50s when Hebrew was still in a process of revival. Especially after the state had been founded in 1948, there was a big flow of immigrants, not only from Europe, as a result of the Holocaust, but also from Middle Eastern countries, North Africa, the U.S., Canada, etcetera. For all these new immigrants the issue of “language identity” was on the top of the agenda, but this included also immigrants like my grandparents who arrived in Palestine even earlier, in 1932. People were “forced” into Hebrew as this was decided by the Zionist movement to be “the language of the land” and a major ideology. Thus, there were informal “tests” administered to everybody on a moment-to-moment basis, through face-to-face conversation. These were not official tests as we know them today, but every time you gave a public speech or talked to a person in the street, in the stores, in the market, in school, in a public meeting, your language was assessed, “graded” based on how well you knew Hebrew, “the language.” We can say that there was kind of an unofficial CEFR scale, if you will, whereby people got language proficiency scores.

I remember conversations at home where we would evaluate the “worth” of people exclusively by their level of proficiency. Hebrew language proficiency was a symbolic tool, indicating belonging, patriotism and loyalty to the idea of the Jewish state; this clearly implied that those with a low level of Hebrew language proficiency, some who had just arrived from Europe or Jews speaking Yiddish, Ladino, or others coming from Arabic-speaking countries speaking Arabic or “Jewish Arabic” or others proficient in a variety of territorial languages, would fail such tests.

In my work on the revival of Hebrew I even found evidence of actual semiofficial tests where the level of Hebrew language was also closely monitored by conducting face-to-face oral interview language tests. One of the documents located in the archives, dated June 21, 1939, is an announcement posted in major newspapers in Palestine regarding home visits to assess people’s Hebrew language proficiency. People were asked to cooperate with the testers: “In the town of Raanana, today and tomorrow, pairs of volunteers will visit you in your homes and will conduct a census for the purpose of counting the number of people who know the Hebrew language. You are requested to welcome these couples using good manners.” This was signed by the “cultural committee” of the municipality of the town.

So, how well you spoke Hebrew was a major criterion for belonging. This phenomenon was interesting for me because of my own family. We were living in the same home with my grandparents, and my grandfather was the mayor of the town. So I grew up in a home where two people, my grandfather the mayor and my mother, who spent 7 years in Palestine during the ’30s, were proficient in Hebrew. My mother was born in the Brooklyn, and spoke only Yiddish until age 5, then she acquired English when she started school. But upon moving to Palestine in 1932 when she was a teenager, with very intensive work, including private tutoring in Hebrew, she managed to learn it pretty well. My grandfather spoke Yiddish in New York, but being literate in reading Hebrew texts, did not have great difficulties in acquiring the spoken variety of Hebrew once he moved to Israel.

So they continued to speak Yiddish and English at home but could “pass” the “Hebrew identity tests.” It was mostly in public places where it was very important to demonstrate their Hebrew proficiency as they were very aware of the fact that this was how they were being judged and valued. If you spoke good Hebrew without an accent (although it was difficult to decide what the right accent was at the time when the language was new for most people, but there was something of a prestigious accent, Hebrew mixed with Russian, which was more acceptable) that was good. But if you did not speak Hebrew well, you were excluded from the collective identity, no matter what you had to say and were often denied employment.
So for my grandfather, the mayor of the town, a devoted Zionist but who was a Yiddishist in New York before moving to Palestine and a principal of Yiddish schools, moving to Palestine meant total denial of Yiddish and a need to demonstrate his identity via Hebrew only. But in the same family there were also those who could not pass the “language tests.”

So there was my grandmother— Feiga, the wife of the mayor, who was basically at home and continued to speak Yiddish and never acquired Hebrew and like many other women at the time had very limited literacy skills. She also spoke some Yiddishized English from the years she lived in Brooklyn; her Hebrew, even after many years in Israel, boiled down to a very small lexicon in her spoken repertoire. So she would not go out to many public events, and probably my grandfather felt embarrassed about her lack of Hebrew proficiency.

While my mother spent a few years as a teenager in Palestine, my father had never been to Israel before he met my mother in New York in the early ’40s. He fell in love with her, didn’t care about Israel or Zionism, and just followed her to Israel in the 1950s with their two little daughters. So you have this situation where people like my grandmother or my father were victims, especially my father, who could not find a decent job because of a lack of Hebrew skills. They were both in a way excluded from participation because language was
the prime definer of status and inclusion in the new society.

It clearly had an effect on the home dynamics. I remember, for example, coming back from a school trip when I was in the first grade, and my father meets me at the bus, and hugs me and starts speaking English to me. At that moment I totally rejected him because he was speaking English in front of my friends and not Hebrew (which he did not know).
So in the ’50s it was not only Yiddish that was rejected but also other languages—English (the British had just left Palestine in 1947), Arabic (even for local Arabs who stayed in Israel after the independence as well as for Jews coming from Arab countries), German for sure, and many other languages like Russian or Polish, or Farsi, etcetera. All these were defined as “bad” languages. I would say that even today after many years of immigration and the dominant position of Hebrew, it is still considered central to who you are; English also enters the equation but not as much as Hebrew.

So subconsciously, not being aware of that at the time, those formative years in Israel motivated me to go into language studies when I arrived in Minnesota. Language proficiency or the lack of it and its impact on people’s lives certainly had an effect on my future interests; I am still identifying with people who are victims of the power of certain languages and the denial of the languages they know.

A: So why did you come to Minnesota?

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About Elana

Elana Shohamy is Professor of  Language Education at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University where she researches a variety of topics related to language policy in the context of conflicts and co-existence in multilingual societies, mostly of Israel. 
Elana Shohamy is a professor of Language Education at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University where she researches topics of multilingualism within the contexts of critical framework, language rights and co-existence.

Her work in language testing focuses on the power and misuses of tests in education and society and more recently on multilingual testing. The work in language policy addresses mechanisms used for creating de facto policies that penalize immigrants and minority groups.

In the past decade Elana researches ample dimensions of Linguistic Landscape (LL), referring to languages displayed in public spaces with a focus on LL as arenas of conflicts and contestation. Her books include: The Languages of Israel: Policy, ideology and practice (w/ B. Spolsky, 1999); The power of tests: A critical perspective of the uses of language tests (2001); Language policy: Hidden agendas and new approaches (2006); Linguistic landscape: expanding the scenery, (ed. w/ Durk Gurter, 2009); and Linguistic landscape in the city  (ed. w/ Ben Rafael and Barni, 2010). Elana is the editor of the journal Language Policy and the winner of the 2010 lifetime achievement award granted by ILTA in Cambridge, UK.

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