A Haaretz story by Yarden Skop raises one of those eternal questions, in this case with reference to the teaching of Arabic in Israel:
For years the education system has been debating over what to emphasize in the study of Arabic − whether literary Arabic, which would give students the skills to read, write and translate, or spoken Arabic, which would allow them to hold a simple conversation.
An Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities committee found that “there are no clear goals for the teaching of Arabic in the Hebrew education system. Is the goal to create a connection with Arabs in Israel by teaching conversational skills? To provide direct access to what is happening in the Middle East (by imparting skills in understanding media in Arabic)? Opening a window onto the religion and culture of Islam? The panel believes that the setting of goals is important because this will set the objectives of study in each of the skills of the language.”
The committee noted in the introduction to its report that “most graduates of the Hebrew education system do not understand Arabic and do not see Arabic literature as a source of inspiration for thought and creativity.”
The committee concluded that the goal of teaching Arabic ought to be to allow access to the Middle East and Islam by teaching students how to understand texts, and that the study of Arabic literature should be the overriding goal.
Their decision is, of course, controversial (“there are those who believe too much emphasis is placed on literary Arabic and students are frustrated that after years of study they cannot hold a conversation”), and it’s one of those problems that inherently resists a single answer. My own relation to languages has been largely determined by circumstance; I learned spoken Spanish very well because I was living in Argentina, whereas my spoken Russian is lousy because I never get a chance to practice it. But being the bookish sort, I’m happy with my reading knowledge. (Thanks, Kobi!)