[lg policy] Is Italian an endangered language in Malta?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 31 16:07:52 UTC 2011

Is Italian an endangered language in Malta?

Sandro Caruana, Mario Pace

The language policy of the EU strongly favours multilingualism and
aims to create citizens competent in at least two foreign languages
besides their mother tongue. The language policy of the EU strongly
favours multilingualism and aims to create citizens competent in at
least two foreign languages besides their mother tongue. Up until a
few years ago, Italian television was undoubtedly one of the main
sources of entertainment in Malta.

Regular exposure to Italian led to a situation where the status of
this language in Malta changed considerably compared to its historical
role, when it was an official language used mainly by the elite class,
the Church, in the Law Courts and in other administrative and
educational institutions. When television was introduced in Malta in
the late 1950s, Italian programmes rapidly gained popularity and
habitual input in the language led many Maltese adults and children to
learn Italian spontaneously, often effortlessly.

This situation was particularly evident up to the early 1990s, and
research carried out at the University, initiated by Prof. Joseph
Brincat, clearly showed that television was indeed a powerful means
which led to a remarkable degree of acquisition of Italian locally. In
a number of cases students used to sit for the Secondary Education
Certificate examination, often successfully, in Italian without ever
having learnt the language at school. Sociolinguistic changes over
recent years have led to considerably less exposure to Italian.
Broadcasting Authority surveys as well as research carried out
recently by students at the Faculty of Education confirm that exposure
to Italian via television has decreased considerably.

Furthermore, this decline mostly affects the younger generation, in
particular those who today are younger than 25. We are therefore
facing a situation where we are gradually losing touch with a language
which has played a significant role in our history and which is also
part of our identity. This represents a new challenge for teachers of
Italian at all levels. The Italian language has played an important
role in Malta’s history, and Maltese contains a large number of words
that originate from Italian. So the problems currently being faced in
the teaching and learning of Italian in our schools cannot be ignored.

In order to address these issues a seminar was recently organised by
the University’s Department of Arts and Languages to discuss the
situation of Italian. Entitled L’Italiano a Malta – una lingua in
pericolo? (Italian in Malta – a language in danger?), the seminar drew
interest not only from teachers but also from University lecturers,
administrators and other stakeholders.

One of the main objectives of the seminar was to provide an
opportunity for participants to voice their opinions, also in the
light of the language policy of the EU which strongly favours
multilingualism and which aims to help people be competent in at least
two foreign languages besides their mother tongue. Presentations
delivered at the seminar addressed the fact that in some schools the
number of students studying Italian has decreas­ed. However, the main
focus of a number of interventions regarded ways and means by which we
may improve the current situation of teaching Italian in Malta and to
create more initiatives to motivate students to learn the language.

Furthermore, the importance of integrating ICT and the media in
language teaching were stressed repeatedly. The richness of Italy’s
culture, travel opportunity, communicating with Italian tourists and
the use of the language in local business companies and industries
were cited among the main reasons in order to learn Italian in Malta
today. Promoting the use of Italian in Malta serves to strengthen the
strong commercial ties that exist between the two countries, as Italy
has been one of the principal suppliers of the Maltese economic

These strong economic ties between Malta and Italy are also reflected
by the presence on the island of more than 30 Italian companies
operating successfully in various sectors, including the electronic,
chemical, pharmaceutical and mechanical sectors. A number of
suggestions were made to help students become more aware of the
importance of being multilingual and to make them conscious of the
importance of foreign languages in today’s world.

In this respect, it was also pointed out that it is time to review the
Italian syllabi in local schools to present the language in a manner
that can enable students to develop their communication skills. Long
gone are the days when teaching Italian was mainly limited to learning
lists of vocabulary and irregular verbs. Unless learners are taught
how to communicate effectively using the language what they learn will
be virtually of no use.

Also, today there are a number of possibilities to obtain different
forms of certification in the language and this represents an
opportunity for every student of Italian in local schools to obtain
recognition for the level of competence attained. A case in point is
the Plida examination, offered in Malta by the Società Dante
Alighieri. Students studying Italian have the opportunity to sit for
one or more of the six Plida levels which correspond to the six levels
of language proficiency established by the Council of Europe in the
Common European Framework for Languages.

Therefore, although among teachers there undoubtedly is concern about
the situation of Italian in Malta, especially as this language is not
as popular among the younger generations as it may have been in the
past, there is also a strong determination to look ahead and ensure
that Malta’s multilingual vocation, which has always proved to be a
key to success in many fields, will be preserved in the future.
Italian may not be as widespread or as popular as it was in the past,
but it is the duty of all those involved in education locally to
ensure it maintains a key role in the local sociolinguistic scenario.

This also ought to be viewed in the light of the several work
opportunities that can materialise if one is equipped with adequate
language skills that go beyond the command of basic Maltese and
English. Teachers from all educational sectors who attended the
seminar were sponsored by the Ministry of Education’s Directorate for
Quality and Standards in Education. The directorate’s direct
contribution to this seminar was especially significant as it shows
that local educational authorities are aware of the necessity to gain
further insight regarding the situation of Italian in local schools
and to support teachers in the development of their professional

It is envisaged that this collaboration between the Education
directorates and the Department of Arts and Languages in Education
will develop further and lead to other initiatives in the best
interest of students and teachers of Italian, as well as all other

Prof. Caruana and Dr Pace are University lecturers teaching Italian
language pedagogy at the Department of Arts and Languages, Faculty of


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