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Interview with Alice Milne — the Malta Independent

An interview about language and Malta's language anxieties published by the Malta Independent can be found here. Unfortunately, most of the questions I answered for Alice Milne were not published in full and neither were they presented in the right context. So below are my answers in full: 1. Do you think Malta is doing enough in the promotion of the Maltese language? What could be done?

Malta is barely doing the absolute minimum to promote the Maltese language. There are things that could be done, of course, but it's also important to note that our history is what it is and it has unfortunately engendered a bifurcation in many aspects of life, including language in terms of Maltese and English. It will be difficult to address this situation without a completely new national language policy that makes sense. Then again, most private companies in Malta opt to use the English language when it comes to their adverts and textual content. Now this preference is even more prevalent because there are many foreign companies operating in Malta. I think what could be done is the creation of compelling and memorable projects in Maltese. A recent example is The Malta Trust Foundation's fundraising marathon titled "Għat-tfal kollha, kollha, kollha." I remember seeing the billboards and I thought the phrase was brilliant because it is semantically significant, in idiomatic Maltese, and definitely eye-catching. Whoever was behind it deserves praise. 

2. Do you think immigrants have the spaces, opportunities and resources to be able to adequately learn Maltese?

I am aware of several programmes designed for immigrants to learn our native language. I Belong is one such programme and the Migrant Learners' Unit conducts classes as well. I cannot say whether these are good-quality programmes or whether they're enough, but I do hear a number of immigrants today speaking Maltese or attempting to write posts in Maltese on their social media pages. This is good because the Maltese language is part and parcel of our culture: in other words, learning our language is a significant step towards integration. However, given the Maltese linguistic ecosystem, one shouldn't judge immigrants for opting to learn English instead. Malta is accommodating in this aspect. To say that this is detrimental to our native language might be a fair argument to make but immigrants should not be scapegoated for an issue they have absolutely nothing to do with. 

3. As ‘Il-Malti Madwarna’ continues to point out, signs and names are mostly in English, while having a Maltese translation. Because of this, do you believe that immigrants don’t necessarily need to learn Maltese? Should they?

For some reason, when it comes to this argument, the importance of signs is overestimated. But what about news portals? 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. This means that immigrants might feel they don't need to learn the local language to read about what's happening in the country they live in. Again, this might mean that there isn't a Maltese-language equivalent that is high quality or respectable or one that is, at least, perceived as such. Migrants will not feel obligated to learn the language if there is enough material in English that satisfies their desires. But what if we publish something in Maltese that demands to be consumed? That is easier said than done. Then again, a foreigner recently asked me what the words 'kollha, kollha, kollha' mean. He was intrigued, curious, and therefore learnt an idiomatic Maltese expression.  

4. Culture and language are inherently intertwined, and with a dwindling language, is Maltese culture (film, TV, literature, music, etc) lacking a future?

This question could also be explored from its flip side: with dwindling or low-quality cultural markers in Maltese, is our language at risk? Language is a medium of communication. If a final product in Maltese is not superlative, then what we're saying is that anything produced in Maltese is not worth consuming. And all this while being in constant competition with foreign productions in English. I believe that if we create high quality Maltese media, media that is iconic and compelling, we'll be essentially advertising the language. This is not to say that high quality material doesn't exist. There were plenty of TV shows and children's books in Maltese when I was growing up that made generations of children fall in love with the stories. Think of Simon Bartolo's and Loranne Vella's Il-Fiddien trilogy, for instance. 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. However, I don't believe that the Maltese language is 'dwindling' but changing. Look at Juann Mamo's Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka, published less than 100 years ago. You would barely recognise the language there. 

5. Your book, ‘M’, has a running commentary that with what little we currently have in Maltese-language culture, the bar for ‘good’ media is low. Would you agree that we need to raise our expectations to build a stronger cultural scene? How does our use of the Maltese language affect this, and how can we improve our local media scene?

Maltese author Guzè Stagno recently wrote on his social media 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 agree wholeheartedly with this statement and will go a step further. I do have faith that there are a few people who are good at spotting and promoting talent but these people are not provided with platforms whereby they can make decisions where they can give good productions and extraordinary talent a chance. Think of the Arts Council Malta (ACM), for example, an entity amongst others that can promote and fund talent. In these cases, the people on the executive chairs are almost always political appointees. As revealed by The Shift News, ACM executive chair, Albert Marshall, earns money from at least five other government roles and the National Audit Office criticised his administration for regular breaches of public procurement rules which resulted in millions in direct orders. 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? Another issue is that 'yes people' itching to make good impressions with everyone and always making sure to please all involved to keep their job are practically obligated to never be critical. Rewarding good literature and good productions means saying no to friends, especially if these friends aren't good enough. One major publisher in Malta, for example, has recently refused to publish a high quality translation project because they didn't want to offend the translators they routinely employ, translators who do not even have a track record of success.

6. Should we be pushing Maltese-language culture more on an international level? If so, how would you like to see this implemented?

Yes, I do believe that if we create a solid platform where every single project is given an equal chance irrespective of who the people involved are, then we can put up some incredible Maltese language productions that audiences would beg to be translated and exported. I've always believed and will continue to believe that a work of quality sells itself. Maltese, once again, is simply a medium of communication and a beautiful and unique one at that. There's no reason why it cannot be appropriately utilised to tell stories, sell products, and sing songs that transcend boundaries. Sigur Rós, the alternative band, hails from a country smaller in population than our own. They sometimes sing in a language that they themselves invented called Vonleska. And yet, the band is one of the most recognisable alternative acts in the world. I believe that if we solve this issue of quality, the language anxieties will be solved as well. 

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