Bilingualism in Malta

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

I recently had the pleasant experience of being invited to Malta for the International Conference on Bilingualism. Not having been there before, this provided an excuse to visit the country and to find out a bit more about its fascinating history and linguistic situation. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Roman alphabet. It derives from the Arabic spoken in Sicily between the 9th and 12th century, but its lexical stock is largely made up of Italian/Sicilian and other Romance borrowings. As it was under British rule for more than 170 years, gaining independence in 1964, English is a co-official language with Maltese and there are now large numbers of English borrowings. Much of the population is bilingual in Maltese and English.

Maltese postboxThe photograph of a – typically British – Maltese letterbox illustrates the situation. The text in Maltese is made up of Arabic elements, including the days of the week. Blended seamlessly into this are Italian expressions which are equally integrated parts of the language: underneath ‘3pm’ we read about “oggetti ta’ valur”,  “posta registrata” and lower down “festi pubblici” – all very recognizably Italian. English is also represented, being a co-official language, resulting in a code-switched text which represents the various origins and layers of the language, viewed through the lens of officialdom. Bi/trilingual documents as such are commonplace in many countries. But here the admixture of Romance, both entirely traceable and distinct from the Arabic, is reminiscent of so-called ‘mixed languages’: due to specific historical circumstances, a few unusual languages, such as Michif (French and Cree) or Media Lingua (Spanish and Quechua) take their lexis and grammar from different sources.

Given all these circumstances, the contemporary issue of code-switching, where people alternate languages on a daily basis, is a fact of life in Malta. It was also an important focus at the conference. I myself have rarely met a non-linguist who has heard of code-switching; but on visiting a small restaurant in Malta, and explaining to the affable owner that I was there for a Bilingualism conference, she remarked casually that bilingualism was a big issue in Malta – “and”, she continued, “we also do a lot of code-switching”. Having recovered from the shock of finding a normal person who had heard of my specialism, I went back to the conference and listened to a talk by a young researcher who had carried out a linguistic survey among 120 or so Maltese informants. She reported that one sub-group – considered by others to be snobbish or show-offs – code-switched copiously. Her talk gave rise to the most impassioned and vituperative argument I have ever heard at an academic conference – so impassioned, in fact, that I found it difficult to establish the exact basis of the disagreement. Suffice it to say that it was about who code-switched to whom in Malta, why and when. One elderly participant in the discussion, somewhat alarmingly, threatened to have a heart attack on the spot.

The organisers later apologized for their colleagues’ tempestuous reaction and behaviour. But I myself came out strangely energised by the thought that my little corner of academia could give rise to such passions. Malta may be a small country, but it is a – still under-researched – treasure trove for linguists, and it is invigorating to witness a linguistic debate which so clearly carries on into the street.

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Languages….what for?

Renata ArchanjoThis post was contributed by Dr Renata Archanjo, an Associate Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication and the Centre for Multilingual and Multicultural ResearchIn her research, she has worked on questions about multilingual education and language policies for the improvement of languages teaching and learning strategies. Dr Archanjo is also an Associate Professor of Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), Brazil.

If Brazil hopes to ensure the success of international educational exchange programmes and boost the internationalisation of economic, political, social, educational, and cultural initiatives, it needs to develop comprehensive programmes to promote multilingualism.

In Europe, the acquisition of one or more foreign languages makes a lot of sense, especially if one considers all of the countries in the European Union (EU), and others in the process of integration. According to EU policy, the promotion of language learning is an objective to be fulfilled. The inclusion of regional, minority and sign languages into society, the promotion of early language learning and bilingual education are some more specific linguistic policies. The aim is to ensure that European citizens will be empowered by those linguistic tools to move, learn, and work freely within the EU, contributing to the region’s development and the improvement of living standards. I regard this as a good strategy.

Interestingly enough, a similar policy to what happens in the EU has recently been adopted in my home country, Brazil. It is just a beginning, but more is expected to happen in the near future. In Brazil, having “one country, one language” is believed to be a mark of national identity. This is a Portuguese-speaking country, surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbouring countries. The setting is that of a poor, third-world country. Perhaps for this reason, for several decades, public policy priorities were centred more on social and economic issues and, with less diversity, mobility and intercultural interactions than in the European context, little attention was given to language policies.

All of this has changed. Today, Brazil is the 7th major economy in the World, one of the BRICS countries, an emergent force in the G20, the leading political and economic group of world nations. The country tries to boost its development in and outwards with economic, political, social, educational, and cultural initiatives in several domains. In the education domain, particularly in the higher education sector, internationalisation is at the forefront. In line with successful initiatives in Europe such as the international mobility programmes like Erasmus, Brazil launched the Science without Borders Programme (SwB), in 2011, targeting the consolidation and expansion of science, technology and innovation. Brazilian students and researchers are awarded grants in order to go to centres of excellence all over the world for a year of exchange study. Accordingly, the programme also grants substantial resources to allow students and researchers from abroad to go to Brazil.

As expected, language competence is here of major importance. Just as European language policies promote multilingualism, Brazil needs to implement policies to ensure a multilingual education. In my current research about the linguistic competencies of Brazilian undergraduate students attending the SwB Program, the first results indicate that a high percentage of students are sent abroad with a low level of proficiency in foreign language. The results also show the improvement in language skills for the majority of students at the end of the mobility programme – which is something to be expected when one is immersed in a foreign language environment. However, language is a means – not the objective – in the SwB programme, and it should be expected that students have a good foundation and language skills beforehand. So far, Brazil is rated very low regarding linguistic capability as perceived and recognized by specialised rankings such as the EF English Proficiency Index. The country appears here in the 38th position, in the range of countries with low proficiency in English. This is something that policy-makers should worry about.

Reacting to that, a good governmental initiative has been recently announced: the Languages without Borders Programme. Developed under the auspices of the Brazilian Ministry of Education, its main goal is to encourage the learning of foreign languages by ensuring an extensive and structural change in the national foreign language teaching system in universities. Like other nations in the world, Brazil appears to understand that the teaching and learning of foreign languages are of major importance, not only for personal achievements, but for the national economic and scientific development. In a country championing social and economic equality, any initiative to improve education, especially in the public system, is to be welcomed. Much more has yet to be done and not only in higher education, as the gap in the domain of languages (both first and foreign languages) starts at an early age.

The answer to the question ‘Languages… What for?’ is not a simple one. A language helps to shape an identity. Through language we give sense to the world. Linguistic knowledge might bring development. At least, it is a condition that must be fulfilled for development to occur. In this case, a multilingual education should be provided. More importantly, extra linguistic knowledge will boost general discernment, the lenses to see the world in a more comprehensive way. Here, again, a multilingual education is critical.

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