Corona-lingo: Bring out the English! But don’t forget the Maltese

The veteran broadcaster Charles Xuereb says medical loanwords from English can confuse Maltese audiences, especially elderly people most at risk of COVID-19

Charles Xuereb: “The elderly, the most vulnerable in the currenty calamity, do not necessarily fully compehrend English”
Charles Xuereb: “The elderly, the most vulnerable in the currenty calamity, do not necessarily fully compehrend English”

MaltaToday’s occasional livestreams in the English language serve to get readers and Facebook users up to date on the latest COVID-19 medical bulletins from Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci.

But one veteran broadcaster, the historian Charles Xuereb, says it is time to change up – on both the Maltese front, as well as on English.

Only a few journalists are insisting on not asking their questions in Maltese, the national spoken language of choice for the vast majority of the island (a recent MaltaToday survey found over 85% speak the language as against those who do not).

“If the question is in English, can the question be briefly translated into Maltese by the responder before answering? The other option would be for media houses to consider sending Maltese speakers for such essential announcements,” Xuereb says, who thinks Maltese viewers deserve to receive an official briefing in their language of choice, Maltese.

“One needs to keep in mind those anxious receivers who need an amount of concentration to follow, given their apprehensive state. Besides being correct, it is professional to address a native audience in its own language. It would ascertain that the target audience – possibly including would-be patients –  emotionally feels the full weight of the message in its own lexicon.

“This is a maxim that the majority of local journalists and more so many politicians, who learnt that votes come easier when messages hit the right note, understand and practise with conviction in Malta.”

But Xuereb also says it is about time that such essential medical communiqués are also briefly and verbally reported daily through streaming and broadcast in the English language, given the amount of non-Maltese speakers working and residing in Malta.

However, Xuereb is keen to have both Maltese bulletins and English versions pay more attention to the kind of medical terms being bandied about.

“When viewers and listeners struggle with the meaning of a vital problematic word or phrase, understanding becomes restricted to a cerebral activity – and not an emotionally felt missive that we all desire,” Xuereb says on words being used in Maltese that might not be conveying their proper meaning to listeners.

Words such as kawtela (caution), complacent, trasmissjoni (transmission) and numbers should be replaced by Maltese familiar expressions such as b’attenzjon kbira/bi prudenza, qiesu ma ġara xejn, tixrid respectively. “Numbers should be given in Maltese, perhaps immediately repeated in English. When one communicates big numbers in Maltese to a local audience psychologically one gives a stronger emphasis to the number. Compare how much miljun in the native language impresses more than million in English, the latter heard much more often, diminishing the impact on the receiver,” Xuereb says.

He also points to misplaced, adopted loan-words, perhaps the one most en vogue now being the ‘swab’.

“It’s not only being used widely by medical and political communicators but also conjugated (isswobbja) into Maltese to refer to actions, not necessarily accurate when related to the very meaning in English. ‘Swab’ translated into Maltese is kampjun, which has been used for centuries. Medically a swab is followed by a test; but in its new linguistic current adaptation in Maltese (niswobbjaw), it has come to mean ‘to swab and test’. In Maltese then one should be saying ‘nieħdu kampjun u nagħmlu test’ which should not take a massive effort to follow. While we are exploiting this essential four-letter word in its Maltese variation, we are often leaving out the test that follows the swab. We all know what happened to ‘sorry’ wrongly used in Malta in lieu of skużi (excuse me).”

But is there anything wrong about adding ‘swab’ to the Maltese vocabulary?

“Not if it is necessary… as long as audiences fully understand what we mean; but I still believe best is to use the words the public is familiar with,” Xuereb says.

Still, Xuereb insists Maltese receivers could be less well able to understand a swathe of English medical terms which he says challenge the full attention of the nervous viewer.

“To watch a film in the Italian or English language, one is aided by the moving picture and sound effects; it is another story, however when it comes to essential understanding that could verge on risks to your life,” Xuereb says.

“Some readers might argue that English is so accessible on the Maltese islands that everybody understands it perfectly well. Research and surveys do not concur,” he says, referring to the MaltaToday survey which points to different levels in which Maltese people use English only in certain settings. State school students’ families in fact are overwhelmingly in favour of speaking Maltese. Other surveys show that school leavers do not always complete their secondary education with enough knowledge of English to enable them to find the best chances in the jobs market.

“This mostly reflects the situation of the younger generation but one must also remember that there is quite a big segment of the older population, aged 65 and over – some 90,000 up until 2017 – who happen to be the most vulnerable in the current calamity, and who do not fully comprehend English or not enough to have first-hand knowledge of medically-related terms.”

Xuereb says that in a typical 20-minute briefing to journalists, no less than 30 such instances usually occur. Most of them such as flights (titjiriet), lists (listi), home deliveries (jitwasslu d-dar), partner (sieħeb), Finland (Finlandja), health care worker (ħaddiem tas-saħħa, tas-sanità) are perhaps already familiar with the majority of the Maltese audience.

Others however might require an extra effort to find their equivalent in Maltese. Examples of more complicated terms include: contact tracing (insegwu minn fejn ittieħdet), incubation period (sakemm joħorġu s-sintomi), acute episode (perjodu aktar diffiċli), respiratory illness (mard tan-nifs), social distancing (distanzi bejnietna), surfaces (uċuħ), cluster (grupp), community spread (imxija), essential retail (bejgħ bl-imnut essenzjali), public/mass gatherings (laqgħat pubbliċi/folol), travel history (fejn kienu msefrin), frontline (fuq quddiem) and containment phase (iż-żmien li nżommuha milli tixtered).

“Quite often journalists pick up the terms in English and perpetuate them in their frequent reports. One understands that medics and politicians involved in the current situation, like academics and educators and a few other professions, are daily exposed to English – this language is a tool of their daily life.

“However once such persons become public communicators they inevitably turn into communal speakers. Such communications would greatly benefit from speakers mastering the desired language skills.

“Final objective? Top clarity for all receivers.”

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