Why can a Maltese person learn a foreign language fluently within a few months but still struggle to grasp their own native language after decades living on the island?
It’s a question we should probably start trying to answer if we really treasure our national language and our bilingualism.
Pop starlet Emma Muscat is the latest public example. She learnt Italian from scratch during her six-month stint on Italy’s reality talent show Amici. But by her own admission, she’s not as fluent in Maltese, despite living on the island for 18 years.
“I always make an effort whenever I have to speak in Maltese, even though I know that I make mistakes. Sometimes I blank out and resort to saying a sentence in English when it doesn’t come to mind,” she said, echoing a sentiment shared by thousands of Maltese people who for some reason or another failed to achieve fluency in their national language.
Emma Muscat was forced to open up about her language struggles because her interviews on Maltese TV turned some of her fans into rabid haters overnight.
“Diġa nsejna l-Malti? Tal-mistħija!” (Have we already forgotten Maltese? Shameful!)
It’s a familiar refrain when you’ve been at the receiving end of criticism for not having perfect Maltese.
But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Language extremists seem to think that people like Emma “forgot” Maltese and did so out of choice. What they fail to realise is that Emma is still learning Maltese and comments like these only delay her fluency.
“Language extremists seem to think that people like Emma “forgot” Maltese and did so out of choice. What they fail to realise is that Emma is still learning Maltese and comments like these only delay her fluency.”
If it were her choice, Emma would have been fluent in Maltese from day one, and so would the rest of us. Nobody would choose to be bad at something, let alone a high achiever like Emma – and especially not when it comes to something as crucial as one’s national language.
But the reality remains that there is a section of the Maltese population which grew up with little to no exposure to Maltese.
Many of us were raised by mothers who just a few decades ago were penalised at schools for speaking Maltese. We then went to schools where the language of instruction was English – partly because of textbooks and partly because of inclusive policies for foreign students. And so most of our peers were also English-speaking. To top things off, we grew up watching British and American television, listening to English music and reading books exclusively in English. The Maltese alternatives were simply not good enough or not as available to us.
And yet, when it came to Maltese classes and exams, we were somehow expected to know Maltese instinctively as our mother tongue, even though it was basically a foreign language to us.
“This isn’t the equivalent of an Italian person going through their adolescence and failing to learn Italian. It’s the equivalent of a Canadian person failing to learn French, because they happened to be born in that section of the country.”
The problem is that despite Malta’s complex linguistic realities, Maltese people are expected to be perfectly fluent in both our official languages from day one – and if they’re not – which is more often the case – they’re slammed for it, which creates a vicious circle that’s not conducive to language learning.
Emma Muscat is a bright girl. She’s pitch perfect, she plays piano beautifully and she’s got great a grasp of language, as you can see with her songwriting and the fact that she learnt Italian so quickly.
But in Italy nobody shamed her for not knowing Italian. They helped her learn it. Encouragement is crucial in language learning because a lot of it boils down to confidence. You need to have the confidence to use the language and make mistakes until you eventually stop making them.
When you’re in a foreign country trying to learn a language, your mistakes are endearing to native speakers. They giggle a little and then they tell you politely where you went wrong. When it’s your own mother tongue you’re still trying to learn, some people prefer to shoot you down and make you feel “ashamed”.
If we want Maltese to thrive, we should really find ways of encouraging learners, not pushing them away from the island. We can do so with better teaching platforms, such as with the proposed scheme to introduce Maltese as a foreign language.
We can also try being a bit more respectful of each other’s realities, and encouraging of each person’s efforts.
And that’s something that cuts both ways. Because for every English-speaking person like Emma who is criticised for not speaking Maltese, there’s a native speaker who is slammed for not speaking perfect English. And all of the same arguments apply.
Sometimes it takes a celebrity to make us reflect on something in our society that we’ve swept under the rug for too long. Let’s use this experience to teach us to stop weaponising language and start using it to build bridges instead. After all, that is for what it was intended.