The President of Malta

Language and social cohesion

Kit Azzopardi

Last year, the President of Malta established a number of initiatives for national unity, amongst which were the Conference on the State of the Nation and the Foundation for National Unity. Language can also be a primary tool for national unity or cohesion, that is, for more robust relationships and solidarity within the community.

Maltese people and foreigners

Malta’s history is characterised by a meeting of different cultures; despite achieving Independence, the status of Republic, and Freedom, our geographical position determines that the country remains open to those same currents that have shaped us. Today, this reality can be seen in the vast number of immigrants (expats and refugees included) and foreign workers.

This is a reality we cannot escape, even if its poor management means that tensions are bound to arise between what is and what used to be, between the expectations of the local community with all its history, and the new community with the creation of a new history. Within this context, language can be utilised as a tool to achieve more cohesion; after all, most tensions arise from failure to communicate effectively, because Maltese people and foreigners do not speak the same language, literally.

Therefore, the structured teaching of Maltese to foreigners, ideally encouraged not enforced, can serve as a tool for inclusion and social cohesion. The same can be said for the appreciation of foreign languages in our country. In view of this, language is the best passport for the integration of foreigners into our community, and for Maltese people and foreigners not to fall into an uncomfortable or awkward silence in their daily encounters.

Other inclusions

Language is not a tool for inclusion only within the context of relations between Maltese people and foreigners. There are several Maltese citizens who can be helped to integrate better into our society through a smart linguistic policy. I refer primarily to people with disabilities, such as those with hearing or visual impairments, or other conditions such as dyslexia and autism.

Many of us are not aware that, together with Maltese and English, Maltese Sign Language is also an official language. This unawareness is clear within more practical aspects, such as the shortage of interpreters and subtitles for various programmes, and the lack of funds and strategies required for increased awareness about our third official language.

The same can be said for people with visual impairments; I suspect the problem is more acute in this case. Not everyone who has a visual impairment is served well by audiobooks; some may prefer tactile tools – Braille – to auditory ones. Where the Maltese language is concerned, both audiobooks and, even more so, Braille are lacking.

Some solutions are easily implemented; for instance, with increased sensitivity to font and paper used in printing, we can ensure that language serves as a bridge, and a tool for integration and inclusion for Maltese people who have been excluded from our society. Other solutions require greater political will but are equally important and ought to be implemented as well.

National unity

There is another important conversation to be had about language and social cohesion. Those great divisions between us can be viewed in their true light and their true scale by shifting our focus to the use of languages.

Language is also a primary bridge between various social services and their clients, between those who advocate for social justice and victims of injustice, and between political parties and other factions of society. Anyone requiring treatment must feel comfortable asking for it and, for this reason, we would do well to offer it in the individual’s language. The same can be said for those who have suffered injustice and those who, due to poor use of language, are embracing the politics of exclusion.

Particular attention must be given to our political discourse, be it our leaders’ discourse through their exclusive fora, or social media. Careful reading and precise and respectful writing are two crucial linguistic tools to help us speak one language and communicate more effectively.

A conclusion of sorts

If we wish to have national unity and social cohesion, we must begin by speaking one language, literally and metaphorically. This should be the first step, and the Maltese language ought to be the point of departure – the language that best expresses our rhythms, sentiments, and environments. The second step resembles the first; we should start speaking each other’s language and work towards a truly bilingual – even multilingual – society.

Kit Azzopardi is an author and lecturer in Maltese. This article forms part of the campaign ‘l-ilsien Malti għal qalbi’, organised by the Office of the President and the Maltese language organisations. This is a translation of an article written in Maltese.

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