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How the Maltese heart beats

One of the various issues passed to 2012 by the old year concerns the heart of the identity of the Maltese people – our language. Greater controversy surrounds it than is encapsulated in the question related to the national curriculum – what should be the language of instruction in Maltese schools?

Reading any of Friggieri’s works should convince anyone how worthwhile it is to nurture love for our tongue
- Lino Spiteri

That particular controversy, I feel, is misplaced. It can be solved by placing the Maltese language in its proper context.

It is the mother tongue of some 410,000 islanders, and perhaps half that if we assume that a third of the Maltese diaspora still speak it.

Everything should be done for Maltese not only to be kept alive, but strengthened. Context also includes the fact that we cannot be merely an island.

We exist within the global economy and depend on trade and the export of goods and services for our livelihood. We are extremely lucky in such regard that we have been extensively exposed to English, which we classify as our second language.

Combining these two facts, Maltese should be the language of instruction for those subjects that can be properly taught in it, including geography and history. Subjects that are more effectively taught in English, like the sciences, mathematics and information technology, should be taught in that language.

Simplifying like that requires a far from simple premise. It is that both Maltese and English should be taught expertly at our schools, in a further context – we have become a bilingual society and that creates difficulties for instruction in either of the languages.

These difficulties must be recognised, defined and tackled. Otherwise our great advantage of being bilingual will become – in fact, has already become – a major disadvantage.

The first decision has to be whether Maltese and English are taught in parallel from early on, or exposing children to the native language in the early years, with English following later, and in due course a third language as well.

That decision is paramount. And it must be made clear to parents who, if teachers are to have a chance of teaching languages successfully, have to be themselves guided on how to speak to their offspring in their early, formative years.

That necessity becomes immediately evident when we listen to parents of practically all classes addressing their children. Far too often they do so in a mishmash of Maltese and English, or English and Maltese, which would be laughable, were it not dangerously harmful. It reflects normal conversation. Even priests delivering homilies at times slip in English words.

That is not a new development. Mixing Italian words in conversations in Maltese is an older practice, one that has left us with many bastard words that have edged out perfectly good Maltese equivalents.

I am not a linguist but, to my mind, it is key to the ongoing discussion that we should start by teaching children Maltese without including unnecessarily imported foreign words – unnecessarily because we have proper Maltese original words.

That is not a recommendation to try to teach children archaic Maltese, but only for teachers and adults to give preference to Maltese words, rather than to words assimilated unnecessarily along the way from Italian, Sicilian and English.

Some argue that such assimilation enriches our language. I beg to differ. Necessity should be the underlying principle. Where it is not necessary to import foreign words, do not do so.

Our major writers show the way. The sadly departed Frans Sammut has left us a worthy heritage. Read his novels and short stories, and you can appreciate my point better.

Above all, read Oliver Friggieri, who I believe has made the greatest contribution to the Maltese language, bar none. Friggieri has published countless books of critical appreciation, novels, short stories and poetry written in Maltese.

More than 50 books of Friggieri’s works have been translated in a number of languages. He has also had studies written by him in Italian or English published in international reviews and journals. Still, to my mind, his contributions to the Maltese language stand out.

Approaching 65, Friggieri, ever a reticent, soft-spoken individual, is still a literary marvel who continues to generate a flow of fine literature that never seems to falter, let alone end.

His latest endeavour is a trilogy in one volume of his recently-published and much-acclaimed novels – It-Tfal Jiġu bil-Vapuri, La Jibnazza Niġi Lura and Dik id-Dgħajsa f’Nofs il-Port.

Passionately in love with Malta as well as its literature, Friggieri’s latest years have been largely spent on drawing a huge canvas of the Maltese people in literary form. The title of his trilogy aptly summarises that fact. Hekk Tħabbat il-Qalb Maltija (roughly, ‘How Malta’s Heart Beats’) seeks to capture Maltese society of around 100 years ago, unfolding it through finely sculptured main characters and supporting casts, leading the reader to judge for himself whether the promise of yesteryear has been fulfilled.

The trilogy volume is beautifully produced by Mizzi Design and Graphic Services, and printed by Gutenberg Press.

Friggieri, I have long felt, not least from intimate conversations with him and his unstinting help to me with my own books, is Malta’s foremost nationalist, in a far deeper sense than that of partisanship.

Reading any of his works should convince anyone how worthwhile it is to nurture love for our tongue, which should also be fundamental to doctors and lawyers, not least in view of their involvement with the people.

Listening to him converse, one would also hear eloquent exposition why, while giving Maltese its proper place, our society should also be bilingual, with English also taught and spoken properly.

The current language issue should not become a repetition of the old political divide over the language question. It needs to be sensibly resolved before the New Year is much older.

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