Question Time: The Maltese language

Question Time: The Maltese language

Why did the University Rector feel he should complain that in some outlets those speaking Maltese were treated as if they came from the moon?

Frank Psaila

This is not about linguistic snobbery. I speak and write both Maltese and English and I grew up in a Maltese-speaking household. Neither is it about the significance of the national tongue in respect of national identity. Unfortunately, knowledge of English is poor among young Maltese, so is knowledge of the Maltese language, especially in writing. The need for it to deal with technical innovations and the impact of dominant languages like English is having a tremendous effect on the use of the Maltese language.

A year ago, I announced my intention to contest the European Parliament election on behalf of the Nationalist Party. Since then, I conducted hundreds of house visits. Bread and butter issues top people’s priorities:  so does the use of the Maltese language.

People complain that at restaurants and catering establishments, but increasingly at our hospitals and within the services industry, the use of the Maltese language is on the decline due to an influx of foreign workers in the last few years.

Ordering food at restaurants in English has become the new normal. Nowhere else that I know of will a waiter or a shop assistant demand that you speak some language other than the national tongue. We have the same situation in our hospitals. I’ve had people complaining that an influx of foreign doctors and nurses is making it impossible for them to explain and learn more about their medical condition.

On my weekly TV show, Joe Farrugia of the Malta Employers Association said that 30 per cent of the workforce within the private sector is non-Maltese. He projects that in a few years’ time that would make half of the current private sector workforce.

If this situation is bad already, can you imagine what is likely to happen when half of the private workforce is made up of non-Maltese speakers?

Many European countries demand basic knowledge of the country’s mother tongue for those who seek employment within their country. That would be the basic we could ask for.

This is why University Rector Alfred Vella was right in highlighting the importance of the use of the Maltese language. He explained, because at times we need to remind ourselves, that Maltese is the language that defines our country and is an important tool for communication, adding that Maltese-speaking citizens are being treated differently and feeling as though they were in a foreign country. He’s right, of course.

Vella’s problem is identical to that of thousands of Maltese-speaking citizens: the authorities are turning a blind eye to this sorry state of affairs. And if this situation is bad already, can you imagine what is likely to happen when half of the private workforce is made up of non-Maltese speakers?

It is my view that no person who does not have working knowledge of Maltese should be employed in positions where provision of services is concerned.

Frank Psaila is a lawyer and an MEP candidate on behalf of the Nationalist Party.

Martin Cauchi Inglott

The train has left the station and our economy is running ahead; the consequence: a huge demand for a foreign workforce. And the result: a cosmopolitan city island in just five years, which is rapidly expanding. So what about our Maltese identity, more specifically our language? Well, after throwing the subject into several circles, I have concluded that there are two contrasting schools of thought, with many more balanced opinions in between.

On the one extreme, there is the Malta l-ewwel u qabel kollox mindset, which believes that foreigners are guests in Malta, who should adjust to Maltese society and learn our national language.

On the other, there are those who believe that Maltese is only valid in Malta, and it is pointless forcing foreigners to learn our difficult language if they are only here for a couple of years.

I would oblige foreign nationals wishing to become Maltese citizens to pass a Maltese language exam, as is the case in so many other countries

A middle-of-the-road solution could be to adopt a softer version of the Scandinavian approach where the population communicates in their native languages but almost all are fluent in English. Malta is gifted with the most widely used international language, which we should cherish rather than shun. 

So how is the Maltese language expected to survive the foreign onslaught?

Well for starters, I would oblige foreign nationals wishing to become Maltese citizens to pass a Maltese language exam, as is the case in so many other countries. But we all know that the government would stand to lose its surplus if it goes down that road!

Secondly, the government should introduce a one-week basic course in Maltese, followed by an exam, for all foreign nationals entering the university, as this would help strengthen Maltese, while discouraging foreign students from coming to Malta just to study for free.

Thirdly, I would place an obligation on passing a basic Maltese test if one aspires to work in Malta beyond a year. This will motivate foreigners to learn our language gradually upon arriving, and could serve as a unifying factor among foreign workers of different cultures.

And, fourthly, I would ensure that we do not fundamentalise our language by translating English words into Maltese forcefully. For example, kejk evolved over decades, but do students really need to learn to spell brejkwoter rather than simply placing the English word in italics?

To conclude, it appears that a decision has been taken to turn our society into one of a cosmopolitan nature. Our island nation is already a hodgepodge of genes, which is suddenly becoming even more so at an accelerated rate. It is now key to ensure that all arriving workers feel part of Maltese society, and one way to go about it is by using of our language as a unifying factor, which is certainly not an easy feat but what choices have we got if we really want to preserve our language?

Martin Cauchi Inglott is general secretary, Democratic Party.

The Labour Party did not send in its contribution.

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This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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