Students Receive Help to Overcome a Language Barrier


Hebrew is the language of instruction at the University of Haifa as at all Israeli universities, but English is effectively a prerequisite. Many of the course readings, and in some courses most of it, are in English.

Should a good student who cannot pass the first-year English-language courses required of most University students be penalized?

Many Ethiopian students suffer for one reason or another from poor language skills in English. Otherwise they are able to make the grade as university students.

The University of Haifa has decided to help these students with their English while they simultaneously proceed with their other studies. Thanks to funding by the Kennedy-Leigh Charitable Trust of England, the University has introduced a special, intensive reading- comprehension program in English.

Intended to bring students up to an academic level of understanding the language, the program immerses students in English for 6-8 hours a day, 5 days a week, over 2 (and in special cases 3) weeks. The course of study is based on the ideas of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator. The program utilizes one teacher for every five students, instills special reading-comprehension strategies, and employs a peer-group and daily encouragement approach to teaching and learning.

Importantly in this last context, it does away with the authoritarian environment of the usual classroom, according to Dr. Marsha Bensoussan, who heads the University’s Foreign Language Dept. This is also the reason for staffing the program with teachers under the age of 30.

Most of the students being assisted are studying Education or Social Work, departments in which less English is required for success in courses. The academic readings for the special program, therefore, have been narrowed to the two areas. These are also vital fields in which trained and certified Ethiopian practitioners can bring benefit to the members of their community.

Orit Lakaw, 22, of Upper Nazareth (Ilit), who immigrated to Israel when she was 4½, “jumped at the chance,” as she put it to take the program. She is a 2nd year Education and 1st year Sociology student. Though she had passed a low-level high school Matriculation (bagrut) exam and undergone the University’s pre-academic program (the Mechina), she knew she needed better preparation in English to read the theories of Freud, Erickson, and others in her Sociology courses. She could not afford private lessons.

Asked about the intensive summer study, Orit replied: “It was an excellent course. I learned to concentrate on significant matters [in a text]. For me, English was a third language that I had to learn. Hebrew was a second language after Amharric. Those who come [to Israel] at a later age have to struggle with learning two languages. It holds back the child.

“I don’t have the words to thank the Fund. They are doing a great thing—to help a person is a great thing. My community needs this help. This [program] will help close gaps, too. The course should continue.”

Manifesting a religious sensibility, Orit added, “They [the donors] will receive their reward from the One who awards it.”

Orit chose her two fields of study because she wants to help her community in some capacity, not necessarily as a teacher. Ethiopian immigrants have such a culture shock after they arrive here, she explained. They are not entirely aware of what goes on for a long while. She concludes: “I think the field of education is a good way for me to bring about understanding among [my] people. I don’t have to use it just for those with special problems.”

Arega Tadesse actually works as a teacher during the day and studies in the University’s Evening Division, where he is the 3rd year of his Education major and 2nd year of his Sociology minor. A graduate of a teachers college in Ethiopia, where he taught Amharric language and literature, he teaches Ethiopians here in a Ministry of Education adult education program and acts as a Ministry district supervisor in this area.

Now 36, Arega came to Israel when he was 23. He has opted to live in a caravan site for new immigrants so that he can save on rent and use the money for tuition, which he has to pay in full for his academic studies. The special program shortened the time he needs to study for the English exam to fulfill requirements toward a degree.

“As a teacher,” he said, “I know that methodology is important. The method used for this course, besides helping me with my English, helps me to teach better, shows me what to emphasize. It relates to students with problems. The attitude of teachers and counselors is important, and they have been very good here.

“I want to thank the donors with all my heart. This program will help our brothers. Such support is very important for us. It helps us get on our feet. In the end, it helps the State, too, for us to learn, to be educated. By helping the individual, they are helping the State of Israel.”

In the transition from Ethiopia to Israel and having to absorb Hebrew, Arega said, he forgot much of the English he had learned in Ethiopia. Still, he did have a background in the language and so the special course was not as difficult for him as it was perhaps for other students. Were it not for the program, he would even pay to learn it better, among other reasons to be able to teach it one day. He feels the course gave him a good basis for this.

Like his younger fellow student, Orit, he also wants to help his community. “Who else can understand their problems as well?” he asks rhetorically.

Asked how he likes studying with younger students, Arega said: “I have a purpose—to learn. So it doesn’t bother me to study with those younger than me. Besides, when I receive my degree, my position will be assured.”

The special program in English for Ethiopian students at the University is an act of what is referred to in the United States as “affirmative action.” The concept has supporters and detractors. The students in the program are basically shy, not wanting to be photographed or even interviewed. To judge by Orit and Arega, who did agree to talk about their experience, especially if it would help the program to continue, these students are also personable, committed, and bright. Their insufficient English appears to be a temporary obstruction, but not an excuse to withhold from them the benefits of higher education.

They talk emotionally about the advancement of their community in Israel’s modern society, and they are grateful for the opportunity that the University--and donors to special programs like this one—provides to bring this about. It is basic and essential.

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