Robert Micallef | Safeguarding our language in Europe

It is with this sombre realisation that we need to look into making sure that while we insist on the importance of the national language and the beautiful literature that has grown around it over the centuries, a sense of direction and logical persuasion need to prevail

The Maltese people’s innate bilingualism has been the secret of their survival in times of war and empire-building, from the epochs of the Romans and Carthagenians, the Arabs, the princes of Europe, the Knights, the French and, as fate would have it, the British colonialists.

Their ability to speak another language other than their own native tongue helped in no small way to win them rights and privileges often denied to other, much bigger subdued nations.

Fast-forward to independent Malta, still credited with the linguistic gift that centuries of domination had instilled into it. Privileged to have mustered the use of the English language, Malta has, through the many years since the mid-1960s, been able to face a brave new world already moving towards the English international standard. The shift has, particularly with the introduction of Internet, become a universal tool one is advised to use in so many different sectors of life, from trade and communication to technology and innovation.

Where does this leave our national language? Some would say on the wayside, others believe Maltese has proved itself to be so resilient that it can still happily be referred to as a key element of our identity as a nation. The language question today is, truly, about whether this reality can be retained in an emerging cosmopolitan Malta. It is here where the experts and the pundits split into opposing camps, but they are united over one special aspect of the issue – the importance of safeguarding Maltese as the national language at both local and European levels.

The Maltese language is one of the European Union’s official languages, and hence its use there – and in the world of politics and at religious and social events – is part of that very process of safeguarding it. So much good work has been carried out since Malta’s accession in 2004, suffice to mention the incredible output achieved, sometimes against all odds, in the fields of legal document translation, simultaneous interpretation and other linguistic services.

Our MEPs have, most times, shown a welcome fondness for the use of Maltese in their regular interventions inside the European Parliament and elsewhere, but it is the everyday use of the language at home that can guarantee the survival of our national language.

Statistics have, time after time, confirmed that the majority of the Maltese people, unlike the case of some other small languages in Europe, still speak and write Maltese despite their ability to communicate as well and as efficiently in English.

Again, it is that bilingual pridilection which continues to give Malta its advantage when it comes to attracting foreign investors, as we are experiencing at this moment in time of economic boom. However, it is a benefit that is being seriously challenged as more and more nations opt to include English as part of the basis supporting their educational set-up.

It is with this sombre realisation that we need to look into making sure that while we insist on the importance of the national language and the beautiful literature that has grown around it over the centuries, a sense of direction and logical persuasion need to prevail.

The appreciation of our language and literature is part of the privilege and pleasure associated with bilingualism, as it has been throughout our history. It should not be taken as a source of contestation, but a formidable tool in the search of new opportunities, particularly in the innovative sectors such as IT, finance and eGaming as well as the new, IT-driven industries.

It is, no doubt, a balancing act, successful only if practised and executed professionally and wisely in the big and wide open market of world trade. Malta’s ongoing success since 2013 is rightly attributed to the new way of tackling the many challenges of that same world market, of better exploiting EU funds and of not being afraid, as a nation, to be innovative and a trailblazer. Positive results abound to this very day.

Safeguarding the national language will continue to be a prerequisite, as will be the need to strengthen our bilingualism – a more realistic picture of what one can safely refer to as, yes, the language question.

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