The Malta Independent 23 June 2024, Sunday
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The state of the Maltese language: its worth, and its struggle for survival

Alice Milne Sunday, 26 May 2024, 10:00 Last update: about 26 days ago

A state of worry is currently sweeping over the Maltese islands; as a bi-lingual country, the differences between Maltese-speaking and English-speaking nationals and immigrants alike are stark. Only a quarter of Maltese children can actually speak Maltese, and given that they are the next generation, should more effort be put into the preservation of one of Malta’s official languages?

The state of our Maltese-language culture (film, TV, theatre, literature, video games and music) strongly reflects on the grasp of the language, meaning this is where our priorities should lie in the coming years.


Speaking with Immanuel Mifsud (left) , a prominent Maltese author, he noted that the absence of Maltese being spoken by local children could come from the lack of Maltese youth-focused media. He added that children at restaurants are reduced to being glued to their iPads on YouTube, pointing out the “serious shortage” of content in Maltese for children.

Malta also lacks fully fleshed out translated or localised versions of video games, which are increasingly being played by children. An example of such is Minecraft, the best-selling video game to date, which is being used in some schools to aid those with learning disabilities in their studies. It has a version in “Pirate speak” (a stylised form of old English spoken by stereotypical pirates, put in the game as a joke) while its Maltese version struggles to adequately translate basic words such as “egg” and completely neglects to translate certain words.

Mifsud adds on that the reliance on these new media forms is being pushed along by the reduction in children reading books.

David Samuel Hudson (right) opposes this by mentioning Il-Fiddien, a book trilogy. “The response was absolutely extraordinary – Maltese children loved them. But something happened since then: recently, we've had the Broadcasting Authority and the Commissioner for Children decry their lack of resources which is leading to mediocre children's programmes in Maltese, for instance. We have plenty of talent and opportunities to fund good projects but Malta's priorities seem to have changed.”

“What is the education department doing about this? Our money should go towards this,” he insists.

In comments to The Malta Independent, Norma Saliba (centre), the executive head of the Centre for Maltese Language, doubles down on this by celebrating the recent announcement of a Maltese-dubbed version of Peppa Pig. She continues to add that she believes the Centre for Maltese language’s cultural calendar includes a number of events targeted for children, such as Żigużajg and Toi Toi, organised by St James Cavalier and the Manoel Theatre, respectively.

Saliba also adds on that “discussions are underway with the Broadcasting Authority and local media to better improve the use of the Maltese language, both in its written and spoken form.”

Not only does the current cultural situation affect the upcoming generation, but it is slowly impacting us as well. Recently, Master Chef Malta, by TVM, came under fire for the conjugation of English words in a Maltese manner – seen with jiddrajjalekx which is a distorted way of using the word “dry” to express that “it won’t dry for you”. Hailing from the public broadcaster, one would expect correct Maltese to be used.

The unintentional censorship of Maltese words could eventually lead to the phasing out of our day-to-day vocabulary. As the Facebook group, Il-Malti Madwarna, works to point out signs, labels and advertisements are continually being promoted in English, while the phrases or words used still have their own official Maltese translation.

Mifsud commented on the fact that other public broadcasters, for example RAI in Italy, continue to respectfully uphold their language. “I keep asking myself, why can’t we have the same level of language use?”

He goes on to say that “the number of Maltese people who can’t spell basic words is shocking”, which he puts down to the media, claiming they are “doing a disservice to the language”.

Saliba has said that over half of Maltese interviewees in a survey, conducted by the Centre for the Maltese Language, prefer to get their news in Maltese when reading online, watching TV or listening to the radio. However, it should be noted that English spoken news on TV or radio barely exists here, except on foreign stations.

Hudson, on the other hand, notes that: “Our leading newspapers, including this one, are published in English. They are not to blame, of course. After all, there is a demand for them, they do well with most Maltese audiences and our culture has dubbed Maltese-language newspapers as low-brow or propagandist,” supposedly referring to media owned by political parties.

Meanwhile, the Centre for Maltese Language has strengthened its commitment to pushing the Maltese language, both locally and for those in the diaspora. Its programmes are also aiding the integration of foreign workers into Maltese society by means of “basic” and “cultural” Maltese lessons through a pilot project at St Vincent de Paul aimed at foreign carers. Saliba also says that “the Centre is also in contact with various Maltese language schools found in Australia, Brussels and China, which are teaching Maltese to the diaspora and to those foreigners seeking to learn Maltese as a foreign language”.

When leaving the island, one is hard-pressed to find any cultural representation in our native language. Our largest claim to fame is Luzzu, a 2021 local film which holds five international film festival awards, with 13 other nominations. With our recent last placement in the Eurovision Song Contest, how did our international cultural acclaim end in 2021?

Mifsud comments that with Malta being so small, there is a lack of competition, and so we struggle once abroad. Hudson backs this up with the running commentary in his book, M, that explains with what little we currently have in Maltese-language culture, the bar for “good” media is low. He also believes that “if we solve this issue of quality, the language anxieties will be solved as well”.

Hudson references another Maltese author, Guzè Stagno, who recently stated that Malta is not a country that doesn’t produce talent, but it’s a case of a country not having the talent to spot real talent. “I do have faith that there are a few people who are good at spotting and promoting talent. However, these individuals are not given platforms where they can make decisions that allow them to showcase good productions and extraordinary talent," says Hudson, referring to the Arts Council Malta. He mentions that the executive appointees are "almost always political appointees”. How can we expect Malta to have a healthy cultural landscape when we're politically appointing people like this on significant boards charged with funding good talent?”

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