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Attitudes to bilingualism

Malta’s bilingualism is not straightforward. A strong pro-Maltese lobby has dominated the discussion for decades. It is good to promote Maltese, but this has happened at the expense of English. Around six months ago, a group of foreign experts had even recommended that Maltese schools could teach English as a foreign language. This created a bit of an outcry.

Bilingualism is part of Maltese identity and is recognised in the Constitution. The knowledge of English also supports our economy. It is central to the success of our financial services, tourism, the TEFL industry, and much more.

The Minister for Education, Evarist Bartolo, has long championed improving standards of English. Sometimes he may feel like a lone voice in the wilderness but I hope he does not give up because he is absolutely right.

Fortunately, Bartolo does not appear to subscribe to the emotional pro-Maltese and anti-English discourse that sometimes gain­ed the upper hand with previous ministers. On the contrary, he has taken a pragmatic approach, giving English its due importance.

As former shadow minister for education, Bartolo had even referred to the “linguistic Taliban” in Malta – and I can guess just what he meant. Attitudes towards bilingualism in this country tend to have unspoken negative and confrontational undertones. Discussions on the subject can easily degenerate into a battleground.

Promoting English is not an easy position for our politicians to take, as the pro-Maltese lobby tends to be outspoken and hard-lined. Bartolo’s stand is therefore not to be taken lightly. In 2014 he introduced a National Lite­racy Strategy, which affirms a bilingual approach. Now he has introduced a language policy for early education, which promotes a positive approach to all languages. Maltese and English are to be introduced in tandem in primary schools.

The policy even specifies, for instance, that signs, assemblies and circulars for parents and children should be in both languages. Speaking of signs, why were all the street signs changed into Maltese-only names some years ago? This includes places like Sliema and St Julian’s, which are among the most bilingual areas in Malta and most frequented by tourists. These monolingual signs are certainly not practical, and the reasons lie elsewhere.

Fortunately, Bartolo does not appear to subscribe to the emotional pro-Maltese and anti-English discourse which sometimes gained the upper hand with previous ministers

There was a time when recognition of Maltese was an ideal to be fought for. It is sometimes necessary to adopt extreme positions to push a point through. But this militant approach is past its sell-by date. Maltese is fully established as the national language, and rightly so, and the large majority of the population speak Maltese at home and at the workplace.

It is, however, also true that good competence in English is essential to do well. Without it, people can face difficulties in furthering their studies and careers. A media survey in 2013 indicated that 17 per cent of university-educated respondents spoke only English at home, while 27 per cent were bilingual at home. On a national level this was only five per cent and 17 per cent respectively, as competency in English decreases with lower levels of education.

Interestingly, when introducing the policy, Bartolo used the word “stigma” to pinpoint one of the problems to be addressed. He said “we must overcome stigma towards people who speak a different language […] The fact that someone is from a particular locality or is part of a social group does not matter.” He said that we should “accept the reality and tailor our efforts to that reality”, and that Malta must not be a bilingual country only on paper.

The policy recognises that Malta must not lose its ability to communicate in more than one language. Apart from our bilingual identity, this also gives the country a competitive advantage, encouraging foreign companies and individuals to invest in Malta.

Knowledge of English is also essential to be conversant in IT and, as was pointed out, billions of dollars are spent worldwide in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language “as millions of people realise that they need a global language to participate fully in the world of the 21st century”.

If big countries need English, then just imagine how much  it is needed in this tiny country of ours, whose language is spoken nowhere else. But I have often met Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians who speak better English than many Maltese, who are supposedly bilingual.

One reason why our bilingual policy has achieved limited success so far is a persistent resistance to acknowledging the importance of English. Along the way, heated debates about how to write English words in Maltese have produced some truly outlandish spelling for the nation to wrestle with.

After years of being the unmentionable elephant in the room, bilingualism in Malta would benefit from a more pragmatic and open-minded approach. This does not mean denying or diminishing the importance of Maltese, but it does mean taking positive and tangible steps to promote better knowledge and use of English.

The educational system cannot do it alone – a positive and open attitude towards bilingualism must prevail outside the classroom too.

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