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 level. 

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 use. 

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 context. 

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 language. 

“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 preserved?”

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

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 programmes. 

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 initiatives in language teaching and learning.

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