How to save the Maltese language from extinction

While Maltese literature is doing very well and publications are relatively strong, the everyday use of the language in the digital world is minimal, and there’s little hope this will be reversed

A 2012 study by the University of Manchester on the use of language in Europe makes glum reading. Scientists from this university, together with other European researchers, concluded that 21 out of the 30 languages on which they carried out research, risked becoming weak, or even non-existent, due to the digital revolution.

The argument made is that because a number of European languages are used by a proportionally small number of people, these would not generate enough resources to integrate fully within the digital world.

“Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian and Maltese are at the highest risk of disappearing, while other languages such as Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian and Polish are also at risk” the report concludes.

Anecdotal analysis lines up with the evidence. Today’s modern iPhone or Android phones, and their apps, are entirely in the English language. Maltese translations of this software, or organic applications produced in Maltese, are the absolute minority. This also applies to everyday computers, which by default are in English, and very small numbers are operated through the Maltese language.

There are relatively decent translations of popular computer software and websites, such as Google Mail and Facebook, however, the use of the English language in these cases is also prevalent locally.

This is a very important element related to the use of languages, because while Maltese literature is doing very well and publications are relatively strong, the everyday use of the language in the digital world is minimal, and there’s little hope this will be reversed. I do believe that one of the most important steps we can take in the short-term is to introduce the Maltese language in the mass-produced devices, principally Apple and Android products, to make sure that when someone in Malta types in a Maltese word it is understood, recognised and there is a proposed correction in case of a mistake. However, that is the short-term. In the long-term we must work on strategies to make sure the omnipresent use of digital services around us have the possibility to be introduced in the Maltese language.
  Machine translation is indeed gaining traction, however, such features are often reliant on user input to strengthen the quality of the translations, similar to what Google Translate does. Google Translate is a positive first step, but it leaves a lot to be desired with translations of full paragraphs not up to scratch. This is not a problem reserved only for our language since it can be seen in various other cases. However, this is a technology which is constantly improving, including through individual user input.

If the Maltese language perishes in the digital world, it will create a wider effect on our future generations. The presence of the Maltese language here is of the utmost importance. Not preparing for it, especially with some great technologies around the corner such as Google’s Quest Visual, would be a shame.

This is not a challenge faced by our language only. Countries such as the Netherlands and others in the Baltic, with considerably larger populations than ours, are also at risk. We must make sure we have the strategy in place to maximise this technology and make sure our language continues to thrive. Absence in the digital world would mean being absent in everyday life.



Evarist Bartolo is minister for education