All of the teaching and scholarship that I do talks to me. I do it because I am really interested.

Martin Isleem

"The languages we speak reflect our identities and facilitate our relationships within and outside our communities," says Professor Martin Isleem, Arabic studies. His research takes him inside two minority communities in Israel: the Druze, a group of 135,000 who are native speakers of Arabic; and the Circassians, a group of 4,000 who migrated from Russia during the mid-19th century.

Isleem has spent time with both communities and has found that the Israeli national discourse of being a multicultural, multilingual state does not always line up with daily experiences. Both groups have worked to maintain their ethnic identities but are challenged by the hegemony of Hebrew. "Since Hebrew is the national language, the majority language and the language of academia and business, those who want to acquire a career have to be fluent in Hebrew," he says.

In a new project, Isleem is studying how a group of young, politically active, feminist Druze women express themselves through social media. "What's interesting is that those who are politically active choose Arabic instead of Hebrew to express their ideas in this space," he says. "They are trying to say something with their choice of language. Are they presenting their real identity? Are they idealizing their identity? Is this something they can't achieve in reality? These are very pressing questions. In a conservative society like the Druze, it seems that social media is a safe place to express their views, and it ties them to the larger Arab community."

In the case of the Circassians, Isleem says they are determined to maintain their native language, but it has been passed down orally, so it is difficult to teach to younger generations, as the language of instruction in schools is Hebrew.

"When I asked them, it was clear to me that being Muslim is important to them, but their primary identity is being Circassian, and what defines them as Circassian is the language," he explains. While Isleem says that their ethnic identity is strong, he believes that policymakers in Israel should better protect minority language rights.

Bringing issues of identity and language use into the classroom is very important to Isleem. He's using a new model in class, called translanguaging, where students insert words from their native language into the target language to improve fluency. He is passionate about his research, and just as passionate about working with students as they discover their own connection with language and culture. "All of the teaching and scholarship that I do talks to me," he says. "I do it because I am really interested."

Posted July 2018