My son is in primary school and is taken out of class four days a week for extra Maltese lessons, along with four other children who are either foreign or are part Maltese, part another nationality. He, and most of the others in this group hate being singled out. English is the language of instruction throughout the school day except during regular Maltese lessons. If he carries on to tertiary education in Malta, he may go to the University of Malta where English is also the language of instruction. A few weeks ago, the university senate decided that it will allow students to sit exams only in English. Gone is the right, for example, for a physics student to opt to sit papers in Maltese. But Maltese at school leaving level remains a university entrance requirement.
The paragraph above hints at a multitude of issues surrounding the country’s use of Maltese and English, both official languages. The university’s move has brought to the boil what has always simmered in Maltese society – its uneasy relationship with two languages, each of which has its rightful place and use in Malta today. Here are the key issues bandied about right now:
1. Practicality: Maltese is of little ‘use’ beyond Malta’s confines, while English is a lingua franca and world language. English therefore is essential to Maltese children’s education if they are to access knowledge, careers, education, society and more outside these shores. University students, reading any subject, including Maltese, are required to digest texts in English and it is mainly through English that they will exchange ideas with overseas’ counterparts.
2. Cultural Identity: Maltese is an important part of the Malta’s cultural identity and history, just as Gaelic is to Wales or Ireland. It needs to be kept alive, spoken and written, and celebrated. We have several young inspiring writers in Maltese who are making sure the literature and language are relevant to today’s youngsters.
3. Nationalism: Some people equate use of a particular language with nationalism. This is a sad move as it causes conflict between users of the two languages for the wrong reasons. Pride in one’s culture is desirable and speaking a language is part of a cultural identity. Nationalism, which has no place in any debate, should not infiltrate sensible discussion of the use of Maltese and English, both of which, and let’s remind ourselves, are joint official languages.
The sooner people feel at ease with both and use them at the right times, playing to each language’s strength as the situation demands (as the university’s move shows), the better. The EU recognising Maltese as an official language is a diplomatic, politically sensitive decision, but has little justification in practical terms. Goodness knows how many hundreds of thousands of Euro are spent on translating the wordy EU texts into Maltese when, as a journalist friend told me, barely anyone picks up the Maltese texts from the press pigeon holes!
As to my son, well, he will continue with Maltese although it’s my right to not have him learn Maltese at all. A recent article in the UK’s Saturday Telegraph paper cites research showing that bilingualism helps children’s learning in all areas: their brains become more nimble; they are sophisticated communicators connecting to people from all backgrounds and are sensitive to notions of race and culture from an early age; they have more self confidence and do well at school; they become adept at thinking about ideas and concepts in different ways. If well taught in both languages (not a mish-mash pidgin version of both), children will develop a higher ‘metaliguistic awareness’, or understanding of just how languages work. This means they can more easily learn a second or third language. And that’s a great benefit.
So, instead of fighting about Malta’s language question, let’s celebrate its bilingualism but let each language work where it works best for individuals. But I do want my government literature to be in English too – at the moment it’s a haphazard affair and perhaps symbolic of the uneasy relationship authorities have towards the languages. I think also that someone will soon challenge whether Maltese need be a blanket entrance requirement for university – for certain subjects only surely?
Photo: Amanda Holmes