The Language Franchise

This is a letter I sent to The Sunday Times of Malta (published on 4 Oct 2015) in response to an opinion piece, which I have reproduced below, by my friend and colleague Mark Anthony Falzon.
Maltese is not like pastizzi and English is not a Big Mac. My good friend and colleague Mark Anthony Falzon (‘Making Maltese great, in Maltese’, The Sunday Times of Malta, September 13) knows well enough that language is much more than just a means of instruction, because it means important things to both individuals and communities.
The University of Malta demands a Secondary School Certificate pass in Maltese (which hardly requires an effort of monumental proportions) because Maltese is our language, the language of the Maltese Islands, and the University of Malta is just that, the University of Malta. It’s not some university franchise or narrow-minded business enterprise. It’s not there to just churn out degrees to individual students: it has a major role in our community. And as Falzon has eloquently shown elsewhere in his column, it fulfills its role more than admirably.
I think we need more, not less language. And we need more languages, too. More Maltese, more English, more Italian, French, Arabic, Spanish, German, Chinese, Russian… This is basically what our University is providing, precisely because it’s not some fast food outlet. The Maltese language is not significant in China. It won’t rock the US economy, or make sales at MacDonald’s rise to unprecedented heights. But it is significant, very significant in Malta, in our community. And we are all the richer for it.
Adrian Grima
University of Malta, Tal-Qroqq

Making Malta great, in Maltese

times_of_maltaThere is nothing new about foreign universities that operate in or from Malta. What is different this time is the way the State relates to them. This government seems unhappy with just letting them be. The idea rather is to actively encourage their growth. The American University of Malta business is probably one of the first instalments in that direction.

I have no problem with the policy, in principle. I do, however, worry that it might lead to the corralling and gradual pauperisation of the University of Malta.

The reason is that while the newcomers are free to run their shows pretty much as they please, the University of Malta finds itself burdened with a legacy of fossils and the political interests that collect them.

The heaviest of those burdens is national­ism in its broadest sense.

The University is thought by many to be one of the top-ranking officers in an army of nation-builders. Simply put, the idea is that the main calling of a university is to produce generations of graduates whose wisdom and competences will contribute to national development.

I am reminded of this every time a government agent (a minister, typically) visits the University to inaugurate something or other. The standard ritual formula is for that agent to tell us how important our work is for our country, and for us to return the compliment by declaring how profoundly aware we are of that noble cause.

Graduation speeches, too, tend to drift along those lines. One of these days I would really like to get a student to research and write their thesis on this topic. I know there would be no shortage of data. The only problem would be to limit that thesis to the prescribed word count.

Readers will have gathered that I am not entirely sympathetic to the cause. On the contrary, I think that unless we can exorcise the devil of nationalism, the University of Malta will quickly lose ground and depreciate. The present promiscuity that encourages as many other players as possible only makes the matter more urgent.

One of the first things we need to see to is to do away with Maltese as a general entry requirement. As is, applicants to the University who are citizens of Malta need an o level pass in Maltese. There are one or two courses for which this regulation makes sense. Maltese and translation studies are the only two I can think of, but the exact number is irrelevant here.

The fact remains that the requirement is both pointless and counter-productive.

One of the first things we need to see to is to do away with Maltese as a general entry requirement

My argument is simple. The language of instruction at the University of Malta is English. Lectures are held in English, and students read books and write their papers in that language. It is perfectly possible for a student, or a lecturer for that matter, to function fully without knowing a word of Maltese.

My key witness is the University itself. A good number of the academic staff don’t understand or speak Maltese. Every year, the University recruits hundreds of foreign students who don’t know their uff from their aħħ. The mad thing is that they end up following exactly the same courses, with exactly the same chances of success, for which Maltese is required of citizens of Malta.

There are two reasons why I care. First, because there are many people, including prospective students, who are citizens of Malta but have no knowledge of Maltese. For some, it’s a matter of choice – theirs or their parents’. I had one such applicant last year. She was Maltese, born to Maltese parents and brought up in Malta, and unable to speak a word of Maltese.

I don’t see why anyone should have a problem with that. To say that all Maltese people should know Maltese is the same as to say that they should all like pastizzi. Only some do and others don’t, and we think that it’s all a matter of choice really. I don’t see the nation disintegrating a little bit every time someone pulls a face at flaky pastry.

Choices apart, there is a growing number of (young, especially) citizens of Malta whose life circumstances mean that they don’t know the language. Mobility is one of those circumstances, but there are others. I think it’s tremendously unfair to discriminate against them. It would be fair if Maltese were the language of instruction at University, but it isn’t.

The second reason why I care takes me back to the nation-building argument. Given that knowledge of Maltese is irrelevant to most courses at the University of Malta, there can only be one reason why the language is held sacred as an entry requirement.

It’s because we think of the University exclusively as a contributor to the nation, whatever that means. I reject that argument with a passion that borders on violence.

Those who accept it, and who think that the job of a university is to consecrate graduates at the altar of national greatness, are free to wallow in the stagnant waters of student ħaddiem and such nonsense.

One might argue that it would be unwise to produce graduates whose chances of working in Malta were limited to English-speaking circles. I would certainly concede that fluency in the Maltese language can be a valuable asset. For example, an anthro­pology graduate who wanted to do research in Malta would probably find it impossible to do so without knowing Maltese.

But that’s also why this piece is not a rant against Maltese. I would be the last person to try to devalue the language I speak every day – one I also happen to find rich and fascinating in many ways.

It would be up to the anthropology graduate who wanted to do research in Malta, to learn Maltese. If they preferred to do research in Nigeria, they might have to learn Hausa. It’s simply that there are many anthropology (and engineering, and medical, and so on) graduates who have no intention of working in Malta, or who work in Malta in fields that do not require a knowledge of Maltese.

The days when the University of Malta was thought to be a machine that made graduates to order for a domestic market are long gone. Only their legacy lives on, and to considerable harm.

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