The Maltese-English debacle has long been a topic of debate amongst us Maltese citizens. While not everyone would admit it, we all know of the existing divide that exists between the so called “true patriots” who believe that the native language should be the epitome of all languages, the “others” who think that English should be spoken along with Maltese, and the “extremists” who claim that English must be the sole tongue of the country.
As a language-lover, I find such issues both intriguing and ludicrous at the same time. First of all, I cannot fathom and get to grips with the classist mentality that still reigns among us which dictates that English speakers should be labelled as snobs or stuck-up, while people who insist in communicating only in Maltese are glued to the lower levels of the social ladder. It may seem far-fetched to think that anybody would still have this mentality in the 21st century, but I can still hear echoes of the words “hamalli” and “tal-pepe” resonating around social spheres on a daily basis. A stern reality-check seems is in order.
Drawing a parallel between the language you speak and a person’s social status or character is not as feasible an argument as it was a couple of decades ago, with the notorious “language question” which dominated the political sphere on the islands.
These “titles” lead to the unnecessary division between Maltese and English speakers. Although finding the middle road is ideal, one should be judged for choosing to converse in one particular language. English is often considered as more polite than Maltese but, in reality, one can be well mannered in either language. It all depends on how you carry yourself.
Such a division between the two languages is also evident at educational institutions. As a law student, I find it quite ironic that the main language that is used during our studies is English, in order to be able to cater for foreign students, but when we graduate and have to put our studies into practice, the official language used in the Courts is Maltese. Although this may seem to superficial example, the truth of the matter is that lawyers are expected to speak fluent Maltese. This is easier said than done because even though we are exposed to everyday Maltese, professional jargon is different. Since we are not introduced properly to this in our course, newly graduated students will find this task far from easy.
Perhaps another sensitive subject for Maltese people is the ‘language’ popularly known as ‘pepe’. The latter originated through the mashing up of Maltese and English. I cordially advise the speakers of this language to make a decision regarding which language they are comfortable in. Maltese and English are two diverse languages and even though they are both official languages, they should never be confused with one another. I would also like to clarify that people who shift to English just for a moment, to better express themselves, do not classify as speakers of the above-identified language.
This brings us to the identity aspect surrounding this dispute. A recent survey clearly illustrates that the Maltese population feel more united through the national language than religion. In fact, two-thirds of the respondents specifically stated that our mother tongue is part of the anatomy which makes us such a distinct population. On the contrary, bilingualism did not top the list of cultural identifiers. It is not sufficient to solely be proud of your language; you must practice what you preach. For Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s sake, do not distort the Maltese language into something unrecognisable, regardless of the increasing popularity of English due to its practicability and universality.
Malta is considered by the European Union as a country priding in being bilingual and sometimes even trilingual (if you introduce Italian to the picture). Despite these so-called linguistic skills, last year’s SEC annual examination reports paint a different picture since students are still seem to find the English Language exam quite challenging. In fact, the majority sitting for Paper A managed to obtain a grade of 3 or 4 whilst 619 from the 2216 students opting for Paper B got an Unclassified result. If you think that such statistics are appalling, take a look at the Maltese examination report. There was a higher failing rate in the latter than the former. If we want to be classified as bilingual, we need to keep up appearances and make that statement credible.
The debate between Maltese and English will not cease anytime soon. Both languages should be given their due importance. The beauty of Maltese should not be overlooked even though we are increasingly moving away from using Maltese and shifting to English. We must be pioneers of our national language and not ignore its use completely due to the mentality that English is more refined. Each and every language has its own characteristic features and Maltese should not be treated inferiorly to other native tongues. Even Gibberish is considered as a way of communication, why should we be ashamed of our language?