Consultation on Maltese has been a lame duck

Prof. Ray Fabri: 'The ‘consultation process’ took off on the wrong foot.. You do not strengthen a body by continually ignoring it and attacking it publicly'

Mark Camilleri, chairman of the National Book Council, continues to do his best to publicly attack, directly or indirectly (MaltaToday, 13 December) the National Council for the Maltese Language (Council for Maltese).

In his wordy article, Mr Camilleri criticises a number of associations (all of which are involved with the Maltese language) for publicly criticising the Minister of Education. The bone of contention is the fact that the ministry, once again, did not consult the Council for Maltese, or at least inform it beforehand, about decisions which have a direct bearing on its legitimacy and raison d’être.

The decision this time was to set up an ad hoc committee to advise the minister on how to change the 2005 Maltese Language Act, ostensibly in order to ‘strengthen’ and ‘democratise’ the Council so that it can function more effectively. Of course, no person in his/her senses would be dim-witted enough not to want the Council to be strengthened in its endeavours, among many other things, to ‘develop, motivate and enhance the recognition and expression of the Maltese Language’ (Maltese Language Act p.5). But that is not the point.

READ MORE • Mark Camilleri No discussions please. We’re academics

The problem is that throughout the long-winded, circuitous and often acrid debate that has been unleashed by the minister’s call for a public consultation, the Council members themselves were never consulted or asked about their version of the facts and their reactions, in particular to the questions being raised by a group of self proclaimed anti-council (mostly) academics led by a historian.

In my book, proper management requires discussing a problem directly with the person or entity concerned first, before possibly going public if they resist. Unfortunately, in this case, direct contact with the ministry only came when the Council itself specifically asked for a meeting after learning from the media that it was at the centre of a controversy – the Council was never approached by the ministry.

One of the suggestions made very vociferously by the group of people who seem to have instigated the minister to challenge an entity within his own ministry is that the chair of the Council should be handpicked by the Prime Minister, rather than on the recommendation of L-Akkademja tal-Malti and the Department of Maltese, as is now the case.

This is, indeed, the situation with the current National Book Council, whose chairman was handpicked directly by the Prime Minister, and who is handsomely remunerated for doing whatever he is doing, good or bad. A handpicked person will always be trapped and unable to escape his masters’ clutches and will always be ready to preach with his masters’ voice, defending their political decisions and extolling their great achievements. This is exactly the situation that must be avoided at all costs as far as the Council for Maltese is concerned. Politicising the language question in this way is a sure recipe for disaster, consultation or no consultation.

It is also ironic that Mr Camilleri, himself apparently an aspiring academic, should, once again, criticise the Council (and the language associations) for apparently being a closed group of academics intent on ignoring the difficulties, desires and ambitions of the wider public.

This is by far not the case. The majority of the members of the Council (as well as its technical committees) are not academics: they are people from all walks of life, willing to work on a purely voluntary basis (without being paid a cent) for what they believe is good for the development of the Maltese language. Anybody without blinkers knows that the Council has, in these 10 years of its existence, again and again, involved the public in important decisions.

It is clear that Mr Camilleri only chooses to hear and see what suits him best. The report about the Council’s first 10 years, given by the director and president of the Council, during the Forum on the Maltese Language held on 7th November, described a large number of activities, projects, programmes, courses, events, etc. carried out by the Council to encourage the use and development of the Maltese language. Reducing this to just the proofreading of traffic signs simply shows how biased Mr Camilleri is, and how ignorant he is about the work of the Council, and about the state of the Maltese language.

One of the problems that the language faces is that, in its written form, it is too often ‘hidden’ away from the public (in government offices, departments, ministries, and other public buildings, including schools, etc.), as if English were the only language used in Malta. This is blatantly the case, for example, with Mater Dei hospital, where all the signage is (still) exclusively in English, as opposed to the Oncology Centre, which, through the initiative and concrete support of the Council, is now at least bilingual.

A (language) policy is not worth the paper it is written on unless the principles it advocates are translated into a (language) plan outlining the concrete action that must be undertaken for the policy to be effective and not just empty words (visit for more information about the work of the Council.)

The associations that are involved in some way with the Maltese language are justifiably concerned about the committee surprisingly announced by the minister at the end of the Forum on the Maltese language. The Council was asked to nominate a member on this committee but was never told the committee’s precise terms of reference (except for a vague ‘changes to the law to strengthen and open up the Council’), or who the other members on the committee were.

Let me make it more than doubly clear that, as was stated publicly during the forum, the Council is by no means against discussing any changes which might genuinely strengthen it and its work, in particular in view of the positive feedback that came out of the forum itself. Indeed, the Council has made a number of concrete suggestions to this effect on more than one occasion. However, as main stakeholder, the Council does expect to be fully involved in and kept informed about important decisions affecting its structure and operation.

The ‘consultation process’ took off on the wrong foot and has been a lame duck all the way through to this committee. You do not strengthen a body by continually ignoring it and attacking it publicly.

Ray Fabri is Associate Professor in Linguistics and chairman of the Institute of Linguistics