Maltese as an online language
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Maltese as an online language

A study by leading language technology experts Meta-Net about Europe’s languages in the digital age raises alarm that Maltese is among the least represented tongues on the internet.

In May, Eurobarometer had found that only 6.5 per cent of Maltese use their language as an online communication tool. Quite a few other countries in Europe have the same problem and the main reason is the English language: the language of technology. It is the language that links together the many nationalities that now share a common, if virtual, space: the internet.

A language has an enormous amount of significance and most of it is patriotic. It is a marker of national identity. In the case of Maltese, this might be more poignant because of our history and how we struggled to identify ourselves among the cacophony of foreign voices that occupied this tiny land or co-existed with us.

It is not surprising that the language became such an important symbol for all that we are. So it is little wonder that Maltese is dear to us.

But it does not have a native vocabulary for the barrage of technological wording that is needed to keep up with a changed world. Neither do a lot of other languages and that is why we, like them, are taking on board English words that are diluting the original language but are necessary for communication.

And there is the rub. The Maltese are, in the main, bilingual. Some can speak or write neither language well and there is a crisis of practical illiteracy that educators have been scrambling unsuccessfully to remedy. However, literacy online is often non-grammatical and, often, English. Even those who cannot write it try to communicate in it. And those who communicate in Maltese find themselves limited by two important aspects.

The first is the subject addressed by the Meta-Net study. That is, that there is very little technological support for the language.

The second aspect is that a lot of those who write in Maltese online manage quite efficiently to garble it themselves, creating a non-language that is impossible to translate at machine level.

Thus, even those 6.5 per cent of Maltese people who use their own language online cannot be trusted as referring to accurate usage.

Many also blame the persistent re-invention of Maltese grammar to which a lot of people are, quite rightly, reacting negatively.

However, the reality is that the global village has become a global street and there is a fundamental change in what used to be a purely national culture.

Social networking has brought different nationalities together to the point that one cannot use one’s own language and communicate across the board unless one is certain that all of the receivers understand it.

Support for translation could push us to go the extra mile and attempt using Maltese to communicate with, even internationally, and the alarm raised by the research might precipitate the development of that technology. But the mentality is, at least right now, just not there. We know English, so we use it.

Maltese will not die out because of this. It is a hardy little language and will survive this as it has so many crises before it. But it does face the danger of being hermetically sealed within a minuscule island.

The world is online and Maltese needs the backing economy, the technological development and the will to bypass its own natural and imposed limitations at least to venture out there.

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