[lg policy] Malta: Language and social change

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sun Oct 7 15:12:28 EDT 2018

Language and social change

Some fail to understand how the massive social changes in Maltese society
have affected various aspects of our culture. From a homogenous society we
have become more cosmopolitan as people from various countries now work and
live here. The effects of this phenomenon have generally been positive but
some fear the Maltese language is steadily losing its defining influence on
our culture.

University of Malta rector Alfred Vella began his address to University
students at the beginning of the new academic year in Maltese. He proudly
explained he could not “celebrate the start of the year in a different
language”. Prof. Vella stressed the importance of the Maltese language on
our national identity and as a useful communication tool. His concern is
that Maltese-speaking citizens are being treated differently and feeling as
though they were in a foreign country.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education launched a public consultation
on alternative methods of teaching Maltese. The context of this development
is that, today, more than 40,000 foreign workers are engaged in the local
economy. Their children who attend local schools are unlikely to understand
or speak Maltese. There are also thousands of Maltese for whom English and
not Maltese is the primary language of communication.

Maltese remains one of the 24 official languages of the EU that firmly
believes that multilingualism should be encouraged. But this is no
guarantee that Maltese, like other minority languages, will survive the
onslaught of technology on every aspect of our lives.

The objective behind the EU’s language policy is to foster linguistic
diversity and encourage language learning for reasons of cultural identity
and social integration. The use of the internet and social media rather
than political motivation is the biggest threat to the survival of minority
languages. Nowadays, users of IT applications use one of the major
languages to communicate, research and interact in formal situations. They
only use their native language to communicate at home and with friends and
not necessarily, either.

It is people who make languages and not politicians and academics. If
learning a language is perceived to be difficult, academics should make
every effort to simplify that language. Insistence on orthodoxy in the
teaching of languages can paradoxically be a sure way of speeding up the
death of that language. Classical Greek and Latin may be good examples of
how complex languages can slowly disappear as people find them too
difficult to use.

The European Commission promotes the ambitious goal of enabling citizens to
communicate in two languages other than their mother tongue. This
‘Barcelona objective’ was agreed in 2002. The best way to achieve this goal
is to develop tools to ensure that school leavers have better language
skills. This strategy will help young people improve their job prospects by
moving around within the EU.

The biggest threat to the survival of Maltese is not so much political as
it was in the past. Irreversible social and economic changes in the last
several decades have combined with technological innovation and accelerated
the mobility of people, goods and information. These changes have led to
more cultural uniformity and, sadly, to the extinction of minority

Only innovation in the teaching of Maltese by linguistic academics and ITC
experts can mitigate the risks to our national language.

*This is a Times of Malta print editorial*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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