Code-Switching Functions in Modern Hebrew Teaching and Learning


Source: Journal of Jewish Education Vol. 82, No. 4, 268–292


The teaching and learning of Modern Hebrew outside of Israel is essential to Jewish education and identity. One of the most contested issues in Modern Hebrew pedagogy is the use of code-switching between Modern Hebrew and learners’ first language. Moreover, this is one of the longest running disputes in the broader field of second language research and education. Based on recent conceptualizations of bi/multilingualism together with findings from an empirical investigation of beginner students at an Australian university, this article argues that strategic use of code-switching serves the needs of both learners and teachers working within a bi/multilingual educational environment.

This article challenges the accepted wisdom of the sole use of Hebrew (the Ivrit-be-Ivrit approaches) in teaching and learning the language outside of Israel. It relies on findings that emerged from a naturalistic Modern Hebrew diaspora university classroom to advocate limited, yet strategic, use of codeswitching for specific functions. By presenting research-based findings specific to Modern Hebrew, this article contributes to the discussions regarding Modern Hebrew pedagogy and the improvement of the language’s educational endeavor. As well, it adds findings from Modern Hebrew, which is an understudied target language, to the existing body of knowledge on codeswitching in the wider fields of L2 pedagogy.

As discussed, Modern Hebrew pedagogy has remained fixated on the Ivrit-be-Ivrit version of the Direct Method, hence banning the use of L1 in the Hebrew L2 classroom. The lack of empirical research has prevented Modern Hebrew diaspora teaching from utilizing more recent research and contemporary L2 theorization. While the research findings discussed in this article reaffirm the underpinning pedagogic principle of the importance of using Hebrew in teaching and learning the language, this study’s findings highlight the value of limited and discerning code-switching to English (students’ L1) for strategic functions. These include: confirming understanding and/or clarifying specific meaning of Hebrew lexis and idioms; filling gaps in and extending knowledge of Israeli and Jewish culture; developing metalinguistic awareness and enhancing multicompetence; and, establishing social communication as a means of developing interpersonal relations and building a cohesive classroom environment. As the students themselves testified, limited utilization of English in the teaching and learning of Hebrew had a significant positive impact on their acquisition of the language. As well, it contributed to creating a warm and friendly classroom environment.

Positioning these findings into the wider context of Jewish education, and the place knowledge of Modern Hebrew plays in fostering connections with contemporary Israeli culture and society, this article posits that limited and strategic utilization of Hebrew-English code-switching affords both teacher and students greater communicative opportunities to teach and learn about, and engage with, Jewish and Israeli culture. As well, use of the L1 enables teachers to establish positive personal relations with the students and foster a collegial classroom atmosphere. Both of these aspects are recognised as essential in promoting a positive social identity, as well as being conducive for L2 learning.

Conceptualizing the L2 classroom as a bilingual environment inhabited by speakers, both bilingual and aspiring bilinguals, allows both teachers and learners to use more effectively the language codes available to them. Permitting students to act as multilinguals by according them a limited and discerning use of their L1 enhances their multilingual development, increases their communicative range and ability, as well as granting them greater agency and a sense of involvement to engage with the Hebrew language and the people who use it. It affords them with greater communicative opportunities to engage with the target language and culture while using their L1 to support their discourse and in doing so learners augment their multicompetence.

Updated: Nov. 16, 2016