Lingua Nostra, Lingue Nostre | Kurt Gabriel Meli

The Emma Muscat ‘incident’ on Maltese and English provokes the wrong responses, and ignores the power of using both languages: because embracing one does not necessitate the neglect of the other

English setting: Emma Muscat’s preference for the English language sparked the inevitable online debate from fans who were stunned by her unwillingness to speak Maltese
English setting: Emma Muscat’s preference for the English language sparked the inevitable online debate from fans who were stunned by her unwillingness to speak Maltese

A few days ago, Xarabank uploaded a clip of Amici contestant, Emma Muscat, struggling to speak an entire sentence in Maltese without resorting to the aid of another language, and all hell broke loose. Later on Peppi Azzopardi uploaded a video of himself criticising the controversy which arose and voiced praise to the English language. And all hell broke loose.

I’m an aspiring interpreter. Of course, I was going to chime in at some point or another.

I imagine many people will find it ironic to be writing this in English rather than Maltese. But that’s entirely the point that I want to make: I have the absolute privilege – which is effectively something given to me from birth – to have two languages at my disposal that I can communicate fluently in.

I choose to use both. Because embracing one does not necessitate the neglect of the other.

This is not going to be one of far too many insensitive posts attempting to victimise and demonise Emma Muscat (I empathise with her situation, if anything). Rather, the inspiration for this essay is this follow-up to Peppi Azzopardi’s original statement, which, quite frankly, if I begin to suffer from chronic migraines, you now know the reason why.

See, by instigating this (very poorly executed) dialogue, Azzopardi has perpetuated an oversimplified argument that generates and sways across two extremes but never reaches a middle point, which is the linguistic elitism of Maltese versus English.

The Emma Muscat incident provoked the rise of the pseudo-patriots misspelling more words than I did at age nine, and whose ardent fervour for Maltese puritanism makes my native language seem as attractive as indentured servitude.

The Peppi Azzopardi response, to me, was both typical and unoriginal, favouring English as a result of the shocking and previously unbeknown revelation that more people, surprisingly, speak it; this naturally went hand in hand with the “more work opportunities” dialogue. Besides that, another key point in his argument is that not enough people seem to know English – which to me, is laughable in and of itself.

Perhaps it’s the obnoxious inner pacifist in me that always tries to find a middle ground, but right now, I feel that that’s exactly what is necessary, especially in a situation of extremely unbalanced bilingualism.

The main problem has always been the ignorance that comes with promoting the benefits of one language while undermining the benefits of the other

The importance of each

The main problem has always been the ignorance that comes with promoting the benefits of one language while undermining the benefits of the other, because it is the same mentality to be expected from a 12-year-old, not from fully-grown adults.

I don’t need to underline the often repeated benefits of English: whilst I think Azzopardi’s approach is highly flawed, what he did address cannot be declared as false. English is, in essence, the world’s lingua franca. To know English in the 21st century is synonymous to knowing how to speak human. To not know English is to forfeit access to the absolute majority of mass media, entertainment, ad infinitum.

What I do suppose needs to be stressed, though, is that Maltese is neither a dead nor a moribund language, and that its utility extends far more than simply knowing something for shits and giggles.

The retaliation often used against pro-English culture involves aesthetic reasons. Language is ingrained in culture, and Maltese is no exception. It’s something that makes us stand out. It gives Dun Karm Psaila and Ġużè Muscat Azzopardi that feeling of unfaltering Malteseness that distinguishes us from them.

However, it’s impossible to simply stick to this reasoning and expect the language to be taken seriously. This perception of the Maltese language gives it the impression of a tourist attraction, rather than a device with practical benefits.

The more obvious follow-up entailing its practical use, and expectedly so, is that Maltese is the first language of most people living in Malta (incredible, I know). For this reason, it is the preferred language of a sizeable portion of people, especially for extended periods of speech.

The less obvious follow-up I often feel gets ignored. I am a person who attempts to equilibrate both languages as much as possible, such that I effectively consider them as mother tongues rather than respective first and second languages. What I also experience are the effects of a private primary school which was evidently in favour of English; notwithstanding, I attempt to maintain my creative writing in a balance of both tongues.

It is for this reason that I feel that, albeit a young creative person, I can truly attest to what I’m about to say.

In everyday speech and personal expression, simply as a bilingual, there is always going to be a paradigm whereby it is altogether easier to express a specific message in Maltese than in English. Vice-versa, there is also always going to be situation whereby a message may be better conveyed in English rather than Maltese.

The point being, it is effectively useless to attempt to discredit one in favour of the other when communication suffers and benefits at both ends, irrespective of how many people speak either.

Besides that, what many people fail to realise is just how ingrained Maltese syntax and structure are in our brains when brought up with equal exposure to both Maltese and English.

Try having a conversation entirely in English, as a Maltese-English bilingual. Now try replicating that same conversation without the interference of interjections such as illami, ta, Allaħares, mela, hux, ħi… I can go on.

See, the reality is that many (and I daresay the majority) of the fervent and extreme pro-English remain heavily dependent on Maltese structure, and this is the reason why, upon taking a photo, one would confidently exclaim, “Illami how nice we came here!” (which, if you aren’t aware, is the technical and grammatical butchery of the English language as we know it).

My intention isn’t to criticise speakers like these. We all fall victim to them. But let’s be honest: if you’re going to favour one single language, then at least avoid hypocrisy and prioritise the whole language, not bits and pieces you deem fit.

The Peppi Azzopardi response: typical and unoriginal
The Peppi Azzopardi response: typical and unoriginal

Solution?

I don’t favour elitism from either end; to me, it is more detrimental than it is constructive. I also suppose I’m not really in a position whereby I can affect change.

What I can give is some sort of advice, which you may consider to be a crock of shit, but hey, I tried.

English is the dominant world language, and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Regardless, I do encourage people to be more open to experiencing the beauty and advantages of both languages, and to not simply undermine one or another by promoting a very useless culture of preference or comfort, as it is exactly why I wish to engage in such dialogue. If you are granted the opportunity to do so, take the time to explore and reap the benefits of both.

Admittedly, it does irritate me when people favour English over Maltese simply because it’s “easier” to learn.

However, at the same time, I very much empathise with people who make this claim.

Another issue is that the people in power – that is, the big institutions – also seem to favour English, including schools, the media, and online fora. Given just how much more accessible English is than Maltese due to its international status, it is no surprise that it is entirely logical for people to instinctively pronounce “enough” as “enuff” despite little graphic-phonetic correspondence, yet it is a challenge to identify where the digraph should be placed in a word such as nibagħtu.

On the other hand – and this might be swaying towards subjective tendencies – Maltese media and art is oftentimes perceived as limited to century-late romantic literature and vapid television shows, which – in my opinion at least – are far from being intellectually stimulating or attention grabbing.

So, whilst it is a problem that some do not wish to learn, a bigger problem includes institutions not offering much opportunity to learn, and therefore, little motivation to learn, or to take the language seriously.

It is for this reason that I strongly believe in the equilibrium I’ve been going on and on about, and not simply an equilibrium of word of mouth, because it is clear that the reality is quite different. The answer should not be to completely (and consciously) eradicate access to one language in favour of the other, but change will not happen unless there is a readiness, from all ends, to embrace both.

 

Kurt Gabriel Meli is a university student and blogs at abrakadabriel.wordpress.com

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