A living language is one that changes slowly with the times. A dead language is one that had been overcome by overpowering dominant influences.
As someone who has witnessed the Maltese language disappearing at an increasing rate in generation after generation of Maltese living overseas, I believe I have earned a right to express a view on the matter of language loss.
Currently, the Maltese language is changing at a tremendous pace, determined by, on the one hand, the need to deal with technical innovations, and on the other by the major impact of dominant languages like Italian and English on our vocabulary. Watch the burgeoning size of new editions of Maltese dictionaries and thesauruses.
Associated with the acquisition of thousands of new words, one notices the sorry sight of the loss of the older Maltese vocabulary – a dead language especially to the younger generation.
Dead also to the hundreds of thousands of Maltese citizens living abroad, mostly among Anglophone communities, who have now lost completely their ability to speak Maltese, the result of lack of any serious attempts by successive governments to foster language maintenance abroad.
A language spoken by a relatively small number of people has a tendency to be swamped when surrounded by a much larger or more dominant language.
The large influx of non-Maltese-speaking workers who are taking over the jobs of those involved in service provision is likely to have a very significant effect, leading to Maltese language loss. Already we find areas such as cafés, restaurants and even supermarkets that will respond only to orders in English and will ask you to ‘Speak English please!’ when you order in Maltese. Nowhere else that I know of, in Europe or elsewhere in the world, will a shop assistant demand that you speak some language other than the national tongue.
It is my view that no person who cannot speak Maltese should be employed in positions where provision of services is concerned. Obviously, such persons need to have a back-up second (or several) language(s), but inability to speak Maltese should automatically rule out employability in Malta. Imagine if a supermarket shop assistant in London demands that you speak French, please!
It would become a merely an academic issue how to spell a dead language
And if this situation is bad already, can you imagine what is likely to happen when the population nearly doubles in a few years’ time, as has been touted already? A population of nearly 700,000, consisting largely of non-Maltese speaking persons, has been mentioned. Such a situation would be tantamount to the death knell of the language, which would be spoken only by a few elderly members of the original population prior to its final demise – as is happening even now among the Maltese settled overseas.
When ability to speak the national language is no longer considered fundamental to ensure a sense of belonging and identity, then we can all choose what language we prefer to speak and leave Maltese to be spoken in Parliament and the courts – as indeed was the case a century ago.
It is time to take effective action now, before the situation gets even worse. The current heated discussions among the experts about orthography of the Maltese language seem to me to miss the point: it would become a merely an academic issue how to spell a dead language. What is more crucial is to ensure that spoken Maltese is mandatory for those who serve as links between the public and any service provider in public facilities.
Countries which welcome newcomers and settlers from around the world insist that a working knowledge of the language of the prospective host country is a non-negotiable minimum condition for application for citizenship. This should apply to anyone applying for any category of Maltese citizenship.
We are proud to have shaken off political suzerainty by foreign powers, only to remain prey to cultural and language dominance. A political will is required to ensure that the Maltese language remains strong and permanent as a flag that distinguishes us from the rest of the world.
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