[lg policy] Malta: Diluting linguistic discipline

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Jun 6 14:25:06 UTC 2015


Diluting linguistic discipline

The language issue has reared its loquacious head again in recent stories
about code-switching, prompted by the release of the last edition of the
Language Education Policy Profile by the Council of Europe.

Even more recently (May 29), the government announced a major evaluation of
local standards of English to be conducted by Cambridge English.

In my last contribution to this newspaper (January 19), in which I
challenged the perceived fall in the level of English usage in Malta, I
referred to the importance of establishing realistic school-based language
policies across Malta and Gozo.

Their purpose would obviously be the development of a good standard of
English among students, in particular in its spoken dimension, which I have
always considered to be the ‘Cinderella’ of the four language skills in
Malta. In fact, a well thought-out and pragmatic language policy can be a
good weapon to use against code-switching and code-mixing.

Incidentally, the Times of Malta editorial of May 19 about this subject
made no distinction between the two practices and it may be useful to do it
here.
  The PN needs people who will stay the course in this hour of need

Code-switching refers to the practice of switching deliberately from one
language to another to satisfy the perceived need of the audience. Such
‘switching’ usually involves utterances that are longer than a single
sentence. An example would be when, on a public occasion, a speaker may
first address the audience in Maltese and then in English to cater for
speakers of both languages present in the audience.

In a broader sense, code-switching refers also to the institutionalised
norm of having school subject materials in English (such as, say, in
geography) while the lesson may be largely delivered in Maltese.

Code-mixing, on the other hand, refers to the quasi-spontaneous way in
which bilingual speakers speaking to their counterparts shift from one
language to another even within a phrase or sentence, as, for example, in:
“Iva biżżejjed għax I’m going crazy!’”

The reader may question my evident tone of bias against this practice,
especially in light of the generally positive commentaries it has received
in the press. The editorial indeed celebrates this practice, proclaiming:
“Mixing English and Maltese is good”. But only in Malta, one hastens to
add, to borrow a much-used and abused cliché. The reason is logical and
obvious.

Code-mixing and switching is indeed a useful communicative tool but only
when interacting with speakers of the same linguistic profile, in our case,
bilingual Maltese. Most of us mix codes in a spontaneous way when it is
most appropriate and convenient and always when interacting with fellow
bilinguals.

In practice, our code-mixing will not work in England or Italy, Germany or
the US. In fact, it has to be accepted that code-mixing and, to a lesser
degree, code-switching, is bad for language learning.

Indeed, it can be a hindrance to language learning because the student who
is schooled in the habit of code-mixing must learn to suppress the use of
an additional language and express himself or herself entirely in one
target language.

And old habits die hard, the saying goes.

Implementing a coherent and practical language policy in schools should
help to raise the level of English in general and of spoken English in
particular.

Its workings are perhaps too complex an issue to be delved into here.

In brief, the main benefit of a school-based language policy is the way it
establishes clear boundaries, within the school premises, of when students
and staff are expected to use either of the two languages. At present, it
is fair to say (this may hopefully be disputed) that, except during the
English and Maltese lessons, students are at a loss about when and where
they should speak either language at school.

This situation does not help linguistic development because it dilutes
linguistic discipline, foils good practice opportunities and encourages
code-mixing.
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