Tuesday 17 September 2019

It’s called our mother tongue for a reason

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

It has always been a challenge to make Maltese attractive as a subject of study. Even those who speak it as their first language become perplexed when they have to write it, usually because of a lack of practice, claiming that the spelling is too complicated and that they never know where to put the “għ” and the “h” (which are both silent, except in some cases, when they are not).

If students who are Maltese speakers are often flummoxed when it comes to sitting for their Maltese MATSEC, then for those who speak English as their first language (whose use of Maltese is limited to the occasional “u ejja!”) the very thought of it fills them with foreboding and dread. What is interesting is that this group is now no longer limited to a certain class of people but has grown exponentially among all social classes. A reasonable enough fluency in English has always been a social indicator of one’s class in Malta, and upwardly mobile, ambitious parents who are themselves Maltese speaking are now ensuring that their offspring get a head start in life by speaking to them in English all the time, and sending them to independent schools where English continues to be the main language of choice when it comes to instruction. Unfortunately, this also means that Maltese, our mother tongue, is often being kicked to the kerb.

To this scenario we now also have to add a growing segment of the population: children of mixed marriages, where one of the parents is not Maltese. But that’s not all, because we cannot forget that in our student demographics we also have to include children of foreign nationals who are being raised here.

The drawback which Maltese has, of course, and one which is quickly cited whenever this topic comes up, is that its use is limited to this tiny country. So whereas in the UK, for example, foreign nationals are being encouraged to learn English in order to ease integration, it goes without saying that this universal language will open doors for them all over the world. But if one goes to the ‘trouble’ of learning Maltese, the argument goes, where will that get you exactly?

The report issued last year by the British all-party parliamentary group on social integration concluded that speaking English is “the key to full participation in our society and economy” and a “prerequisite for meaningful engagement with most British people”. If we try to extrapolate that reasoning to Malta, it does not quite work the same way. I know whole swathes of Maltese people who get by quite perfectly without having to utter a word in Maltese unless they absolutely have to, so I can also imagine those who re-locate here being able to get by rather easily, especially if they restrict their social circles to those who are also English-speaking. Knowing Maltese does help of course, especially if one wants to avoid being ripped off by the vegetable man, and it comes in extremely handy if you want to know when the locals are passing comments about you. On the other hand, while not exactly a prerequisite, I also believe that those who integrate best are those who make a genuine effort to learn the language – I for one am always pleasantly surprised when someone from another country learns a few Maltese phrases here and there, and am incredibly impressed when they actually manage to master whole conversations. There is something particularly flattering about someone making all that effort to learn our language; a form of courtesy which is hard to explain, but which shows a willingness to belong to our culture.

It is for this reason that I can never quite figure out why there are those who are Maltese born and bred who insist on turing their backs on the language. It is called our mother tongue for a reason, because it is the tongue we are taught at our mother’s knee (unless one is raised in another country that is). Another thing which has always stumped me is why there are those who make it a point of almost bragging that they do not know how to speak/write Maltese, as if that is some kind of achievement. When being fluent in different languages is considered something to be proud of all over the world, why would not knowing a language be considered a badge of honour?

All of this is, of course, simply a preamble to the latest chapter in the perennial ‘Language Question’: the announcement that the Education Department is considering the idea of offering the option to learn Maltese as a Foreign Language even to Maltese students. My first reaction to this was that we are ‘dumbing down’ Maltese and simply lowering the bar in order to have more people pass a proficiency exam without having to study Maltese literature as happens when one sits for the MATSEC.

The idea is still at consultation stage but has already been blasted by academics, writers and publishers, who have described it as a step backwards rather than forwards when it comes to our mother tongue. I have to admit I feel their pain. Why shouldn’t we learn Maltese properly, and why shouldn’t we study its literature? It seems to me like this is just another easy way out for those who can’t be bothered to make the effort to hit the books and study as we all had to do after all.

On the other hand, the stark reality is that many see the Maltese exam as a chore and a ’necessary evil’ which is certainly not conducive to enjoying the study of a language. Too often, the constant message being transmitted to children by some parents is that Maltese is an unpleasant hurdle which needs to be jumped if they want to go on to further education, and the whole approach to learning the language is mired in doom and gloom. So in this respect I can understand why efforts are being made to offer alternative ways to learn Maltese in order to make it more accessible to those strata of society who would not otherwise use it.

Faced by a barrage of criticism, Minister Evarist Bartolo had to reassure the public that Maltese was not being removed as a subject, as had been incorrectly reported by some news outlets. “This course will lead up to a different exam than the O-level, but which will allow students to enter University, unless of course they intend to enrol in a degree (such as Maltese) which specifically requires a Maltese O-level”, the Ministry statement said. “There are Maltese and foreign students whose mother tongue isn’t Maltese, as well as vocationally-inclined Maltese-speaking students who cannot cope with the academic nature of the current exams.”

As well-meaning as this option is, I can already envisage a situation where sitting for the Maltese as a Foreign Language exam will be the preferred choice. Let’s face it, an increased penchant for shortcuts and cutting corners by many students is already a reality, and I’m afraid this will simply just present them with another way to just slide by. Some kind of middle ground needs to be reached, and hopefully this public consultation will result in a solution which is acceptable to those who truly have Maltese at heart.

What we really should be striving for is a natural type of bilingualism where both English and Maltese take their rightful place in our national psyche. It does not happen enough because one language is too often given preference over the other in some kind of misguided belief that it is impossible to be fluent, to write properly and to appreciate the literature of both. This could not be further from the truth, and generations of Maltese people are living proof of that.

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