[lg policy] Malta: Minding our language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed May 22 11:19:07 EDT 2019

Minding our languageMaltese is one of the 24 official working languages of
the European Union and can be used in any communication with the EU
institutions. But are we doing enough to keep it alive? Jo Caruana finds
[image: The Maltese language’s status as an official EU language has both
fed and driven the development of electronic resources for the language.]

The Maltese language’s status as an official EU language has both fed and
driven the development of electronic resources for the language.

Maltese may be one of Malta’s two official languages – but it is our only
national language. Technically speaking, all official documents have to be
released in English and Maltese, national signage is bilingual, and
children grow up learning both languages at school.

Meanwhile, as an EU member state, use of our language is also enforced at
EU level. Maltese is one of the 24 official languages in the EU, and
despite it being the smallest EU official language, as EU citizens we still
have the right to use the vernacular in any correspondence with the EU
institutions – and the institutions need to reply to us in Maltese too. It
also means that all EU regulations and other legislative texts are
published in Maltese.

A language is kept alive through circumstances and how we react to such
circumstances. One circumstance was Malta’s accession to the EU in 2004.
This historic event brought with it the need to translate a substantial
corpus of legislation and documents into Maltese. This need was
unprecedented to the extent that it required the training of translators
and interpreters, as well as the introduction of new courses at tertiary

The vernacular itself also needed to reflect new realities, such as
objects, processes, procedures and entities with which the language had
never come in contact before, and for the incorporation of these Maltese
terms in a coherent terminological database permitting their consistent

In addition, the language’s status as an official EU language has both fed
and driven the development of electronic resources for the language, such
as extensive parallel corpora and machine translation engines.

Malta’s membership of the EU has intrinsically strengthened the
international presence of written Maltese, given the language added value
and boosted it to be used effectively and efficiently within a new European

But even with all this considered, and beyond officialdom, it is us
speakers who can keep our language alive. Are we doing this? And should
more be done to put safeguarding the Maltese language on the national and
European agenda?

Looking at educational institutions, a study published by the National
Literacy Agency last April paints a complex picture. The study found that,
while Maltese was the predominant language used by teachers in State
schools, English was the language of choice in non-State ones. With regards
to the alphabet, this was presented in English in Church and independent
schools, while students in State kindergartens were taught the Maltese
version. Language use is also dictated by the subject in question – for
instance, topics involving mathematics and numbers were taught in English
in all schools.

“Maltese is such an important part of our culture that I often wonder why
anyone would question the importance of safeguarding it,” says Chris
Gruppetta from Merlin Publishers. “Would anyone dream of asking whether we
should safeguard our temples, or other more tangible aspects of our history?

“To me, our language is part and parcel of what makes us Maltese and thus,
should be protected at all costs. Not to the detriment of English, of
course, but both should live in parallel. Ultimately, we are so lucky to
have them both and should embrace that wholeheartedly.”

Playwright and author Simone Spiteri also says she finds it peculiar why we
would ever even question the importance of safeguarding the Maltese

“Would we ask the Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese or any native – or
non-native – speaker of a language, this question?” she wonders.

“A language is the heartbeat not just of a specific nation but more
importantly of the people who are the fabric of that nation, whether they
live in it or not. It’s not just a series of sounds put together that aid
communication – a language encapsulates the spirit, the pulse, the essence
of a group of people. And what’s more beautiful than that? Plus, when you
then reflect on these questions from the point of view of a tiny little
rock that has its own multi-layered, complex language that says so much
about who we were, who we are, who came here, who shaped and dismantled us:
Isn’t that what constitutes heritage, and shouldn’t heritage always be

A language encapsulates the spirit, the pulse, the essence of a group of

Being bilingual gives us so many benefits. “We are so blessed to be fluent
in English, and I am an absolute champion of us maintaining that
advantage,” Dr Gruppetta says.

“But it can also be a challenge, as people wonder why we need to push the
use of Maltese when we have English. But why must one be pipped against the
other? One should not be harmed because of the other.”

Take the ongoing debate about whether English words should be ‘edited’ for
use in Maltese, for example. Dr Gruppetta questions why this needs to be
such a contentious issue.

“I believe this is only contested so fervently because we speak both
English and Maltese,” he says. “I was recently in Lithuania and spotted how
many English words have been adopted into the language and spelt in a way
that makes them local – words like taxi, for example. No one bats an
eyelid. Here, on the other hand, it is used as an example of how Maltese
could be perceived as a weak language. We are often on the receiving end of
that kind of criticism in the books we publish, and I find that people ask
questions of Maltese that they wouldn’t necessarily ask of other language.

“I would argue it is a good thing we are adding words like this to Maltese,
and finding solutions for this challenge. It is a sign that Maltese is
still very much alive, and that it is growing up.”

Looking to the future of how Maltese should go on to be used and protected,
Ms Spiteri says that the ideal would be to raise awareness through all the
possible avenues – including further reinforcing the fact that Maltese is
already an official language in the EU.

“Protection of a language should be led by example,” she says. “By people
who have a wide reach – artists, politicians, journalists, writers,
educators. If we make a collective effort to use well spoken Maltese – and
English, for that matter – the effects will reverberate across society and
down generations. I think there are many people who have this aim at heart
and do commendable work both officially and unofficially but the effort
must be more widespread to keep Maltese alive for centuries and generations
to come.”
How we speak

Languages  and linguistic diversity  are an integral part of European
identity. In an EU founded on the motto ‘Unity in Diversity’, languages are
fundamental for respecting cultural diversity.  Indeed, Article 165(2) of
the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) emphasises that
‘Union action shall be aimed at developing the European dimension in
education, particularly through the teaching and dissemination of the
languages of the Member States’,  while fully respecting cultural and
linguistic diversity (Article 165(1) TFEU).

The EU has designated language learning as a priority, and funds programmes
and projects in this area. Multilingualism is an important element in
Europe’s competitiveness. One of the objectives of the EU’s language policy
is that every European citizen should master two other languages in
addition to their mother tongue.

The EU’s achievements in promoting linguistic diversity include the
adoption of the European Indicator of Language Competence, an instrument to
measure overall language competence in all member states, and the European
Master’s in Translation, a quality label for university translation

The EU supports two centres for research on languages, the European Centre
for Modern Languages and the European Research Centre on Multilingualism
and Language Learning. Through its Creative Europe Programme, the EU
supports the translation of books and manuscripts under the Culture
sub-programme and also awards the European Language Label, to encourage new


 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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