Preservation of Maltese Culture and Language in Canada

Author: Richard S. Cumbo

Yesterday I gave you a very brief history of the Maltese in Canada and I spoke about the present situation of Maltese-Canadian communities. If you would like an excellent and in-depth history of the Maltese in Canada I would highly recommend Father Lawrence Attardís Man and Means series. Dar LíEmigrant also has copies of the history of the Maltese-Canadian community in Toronto which Professor John Portelli and I wrote for the 75th anniversary of the Maltese-Canadian Society of Toronto in 1997. The present situation of Maltese-Canadian communities in Canada definitely has an effect of the future of Maltese culture and especially the language in Canada.

I obtained some of the following information from a dissertation by a Canadian student from British Columbia attending the University of Malta. Hannah Slavik (with encouragement from Dr Lydia Shriha) conducted a minutely detailed study of "Language Maintenance and Shift among Maltese Migrants in Ontario and British Columbia." Her paper however covers all of Canada. Hannahís 200 page document contains interviews with academics from here in Malta as well as in Canada. She also interviewed many Maltese-Canadians active in their respective communities.

What is being done to preserve Maltese Culture and Language?

Institutions play an important role in helping to preserve our culture and native language. Many of the Maltese-Canadians that Ms Slavik interviewed commented that their institutions promoted Maltese culture because the institutions themselves were a reflection of Maltese culture. The very existence of these institutions demonstrates the maintenance of the Maltese identity. For example the establishment of the Maltese-Canadian Society of Toronto in 1922 reflects the pride and awareness the early Maltese in Toronto had for their Maltese heritage. In the same way the building of St Paul the Apostle Maltese Church in 1930, for example, was not only a great act of faith on the part of the early community but also a demonstration of the strength of the Maltese identity.

Band clubs and soccer clubs are such common institutions in Malta that their establishment in Toronto was also a cultural act, although this part of our culture was adopted from other countries.

Many Maltese-Canadian organizations play a more active role in preserving the culture by organizing Maltese-style events or activities. Typical Maltese marching band concerts, carnival dances, Maltese National Day celebrations, Maltese soccer competitions, plays in Maltese, folklore concerts, celebration of village festaís, cultural displays and religious activities all help to support the preservation of Maltaís uniqueness in a Canadian environment. Maltese traditional activities also help to inform the Canadian public about the Maltese Islands and subsequently spread awareness of our culture. Except for a couple of these activities, most tend to take place in the English language in order to accommodate individuals who do not speak Maltese. Therefore to a certain extent the culture is "watered down". The worst aspect of this is that the Maltese language is being sacrificed to accommodate a larger audience.

The church in the Toronto community namely St Paul the Apostle, plays a major role in propagating the faith utilizing the culture and language of Malta. For a good number of years Mass has been conducted in Maltese. St Paulís excellent adult and youth choirs sing in Maltese and English, various parish groups when they meet usually converse in Maltese. Since the Missionary Society of St Paul took over the administration of the Maltese parish in March, 1999, the "Maltese atmosphere" has become stronger. This is not meant to diminish the 48 years of dedicated Franciscan service at St Paulís. However during the past decades there may have been instances by some Franciscans to encourage assimilation rather sharing with other Canadians our rich heritage. St Paulís fosters and encourages not only the use of the church complex for Maltese events, but also promotes the language through its every day dealings with its Maltese parishioners.

To preserve its identity, the Gozo Club of Toronto was formed (1974) because Gozitan emigrants felt that the Maltese clubs did not reflect their unique Gozitan identity.

More recently groups of individuals have formed into committees to organize the festa component of our culture. This usually entails Mass and a dinner dance with a representation of the patron saint of Il-Madonna exhibited in the hall.

By feeding into these institutions or groups the culture and language have a nucleus from which to grow. The dispersion of a large number of Maltese from Torontoís "Junction" area has weakened the "Maltese atmosphere" of the Junction and therefore the Maltese identity of the area. However a Maltese presence is still noticeable although at a lower degree.

Some institutions have decided to concentrate their efforts in exposing and supporting the Maltese language, I use the word "exposing" because the language is exposed but not actually taught. In doing so they reach a smaller audience, mainly first generation Maltese. I am speaking about the Maltese-Canadian media. The one Maltese television program and Maltese newspaper in the Greater Toronto Area are entirely in Maltese. Both, at irregular times, will have non-Maltese content depending who is being interviewed on television or what is being written in the paper. The immediate needs and interest of younger Maltese is often not met.

Only when an individual has a good foundation of Maltese, Maltese television and reading material will then become tools to further support the retention and preservation of the language and culture. The advantage of having exposure in various media forms, is that a larger audience can geographically to covered. The media in Toronto does its utmost to support our language.

To encourage the preservation of Maltaís culture and language a publication called Wirt Malta was being produced in Toronto in the early nineties. This excellent publication was not just for Maltese-Canadians, the intention was to promote it to other Maltese communities abroad. It contained informative articles about the history of Malta, the culture, current events and a section for Maltese lessons. The booklet printed in Maltese and English, was glossy, attractive and very user friendly. Unfortunately after only a few years it disappeared quietly off the market.

The only institution in Canada (and possibly in North America) which has taken the important role of teaching and promoting the Maltese language and culture is the Maltese Heritage Programme in Toronto.

The two other institutions (television and newspaper) are either resigned to disappearing once their audience is gone, therefore sacrificing the culture as well as the language, or adjusting to use some English in order to expand their audience.

The Maltese Heritage Programme has played such an important role in the preservation and promotion of the language and culture that it warrants a brief overview of how it all started.

In the early days St Paulís Church and the Maltese-Canadian Society of Toronto worked closely in helping emigrants adapt to their new life in Toronto. The earliest known "heritage type" classes were held in St Paulís Parish House. Here young students received religious instruction and cultural education in Maltese and English. As other organizations were formed, over the years they also created activities which helped in supporting the Maltese culture and language in Canada.

One of the first school boards in Canada to encourage the promotion and education of an emigrantsí cultural background was Ontarioís Metropolitan Toronto Separate School Board (now the Toronto District Catholic School Board).

In the 1970s, Torontoís Separate School Board approached Mr Godwin Darmanin, a Maltese emigrant, who conceived the idea of starting Maltese Heritage Classes in a West-end school. Others were also instrumental in this venture. After many meetings with the Board, correspondence with the Government of Malta, and consultations with community, the first class of approximately 25 students was started in 1977. The classes were first held at Saint James Catholic School in Torontoís West-end. Mr Darmanin, who at the time was the principal at St Lucyís School in Toronto, was instrumental in initiating the first Maltese Programme; and in succeeding years has remained a resource person should the Maltese Heritage Programme require his services or advice.

In 1979 the classes were moved to their present location at James Culnan Catholic School at 605 Willard Avenue in West Toronto. The number of students presently attending the Saturday afternoon sessions is about 75.

In response to the great interest generated by the Maltese Heritage Programme, the Metropolitan Separate School Board produced a curriculum especially designed for Maltese-Canadian students. Mr Darmanin assisted in this innovative project. The Maltese Heritage Programme is administered by the Metropolitan Separate School Board with little financial assistance from the Government of Ontario. The curriculum is aimed principally at elementary-school-aged-children, however teenagers and adults have also attended the informative and interesting classes. The programme attracted students mostly from the surrounding area which had a high concentration of Maltese-Canadians; there are students who come, albeit in smaller numbers, from Scarborough, Rexdale, Malton, Mississauga, and even Burlington. The students are given language instructions in Maltese and English with further lessons on Maltaís rich history and culture. The programmeís youth choir performs at events in Maltese. A number of excellent instructors supervise the classes, while being assisted by experienced and qualified individuals. The present head of the programme is the highly qualified and dedicated Mrs Maria Vella.

To assist the programme, the Maltese Heritage Class Programme Parents and Teachers Association was founded in 1984. The P.T.A. also raises funds for some of the needs of the programme. Students attending the programme are strongly encouraged to participate in various Maltese community events outside of their regular classes.

A high school credit programme in Maltese is available, depending on how many students want to take the course. At this time the course is not in use due to lack the students.

Across Canada, where communities of Maltese exist and Maltese-Canadian organizations are functioning, the promotion of Maltaís rich culture and to a lesser degree its language will receive exposure.

How Much is the Maltese Language Being Used

In her study/survey Hannah Slavik found that Maltese-Canadians in Toronto area tend to speak or use more Maltese than those of their counterparts in other communities in Ontario and Canada. Those living in much smaller communities have, especially in areas where there isnít a large concentration of Maltese, less opportunities of meeting fellow Maltese-Canadians and therefore speak less Maltese. When they do meet, especially if they are first generation Maltese, they will automatically start speaking in Maltese.

During October and November, 1998 Ms Slavik conducted an extensive survey of the Maltese-Canadian communities with the assistance of some organizations. The following information collected regarding the usage of the Maltese language in Canada was very interesting.

Language spoken to siblings (between brothers and sisters) appears to relate primarily to generation. While just under 77% of first generation Maltese-Canadians speak Maltese or Maltese with some English to siblings, only 22% of second generation Maltese-Canadians speak Maltese or Maltese with some English to siblings. Conversely, about 9% of first generation respondents speak only English to siblings, while 63% of second generation respondents speak only English to siblings. Maltese-Canadians in the Toronto area appear slightly more likely to speak Maltese or Maltese with some English to siblings than those living elsewhere. The differences are not large: 66% of those living elsewhere speak Maltese or Maltese with some English. However, those living in or near Toronto are more likely to speak only Maltese (49%) rather than Maltese with some English (17.7%) while those living elsewhere are more likely to speak Maltese with some English (44.1%) rather than only Maltese (17.6%) to their siblings.

Language maintenance is not possible unless parents pass their language to their children. Therefore, the parent-child relationship is one of the most important to examine. Of the 84 first generation respondents with children, 5, or 6% reported that they speak Maltese with their children. Some 10, or 11.9% speak Maltese with some English, while 30, or 35.7% speak English with some Maltese, and the remaining 39, or 46.4% speak only English with their children.

Of the 30 second generation Maltese-Canadian respondents, 13 have children. Only I reported speaking Maltese to children, while four reported speaking English with some Maltese. The remaining eight speak only English with their children.

So few speak Maltese or even Maltese with some English to their children that comparing the two residential areas reveals little. One result of note in this comparison is that while most Toronto area residents speak English with some Maltese to their children (44.8%) rather than only English (35.8%), most of those living away from Toronto area speak only English (76.7%).

In the sample, only 26 of the first generation respondents have grandchildren. However, none reported speaking only Maltese to their grandchildren. One, or 3.8% reported speaking Maltese with some English to grandchildren, 3, or 11.5% reported speaking English with some Maltese, and 22, or 84.6% reported speaking only English to grandchildren.

If the number of first generation Maltese-Canadians who speak Maltese to their children can be taken as an indication, use of Maltese is rarely passing beyond the second generation, and in many cases, not even into the second generation. Few parents are passing Maltese on to their children.

The majority of respondents (61.4%) who visit Malta report that while in Malta they speak Maltese. Another 23.6% report using both English and Maltese in Malta. When the results are split into two generations it becomes clear that while most first generation respondents use Maltese in Malta and very few use English, most second generation respondents use English in Malta and very few use Maltese.

The respondents in Toronto and area are far more likely to use Maltese than English in Malta. The respondents residing elsewhere are equally likely to use Maltese or both Maltese and English. The survey asked respondents several questions to discover whether they read in Maltese, write in Maltese, or watch Maltese television programmes. The questions about reading were also aimed at discovering the reasons that respondents do, or do not read books or newspapers in Maltese.

The most frequent to the question "Do you read books or newspapers in Maltese?" was "occasionally", the answer given by 33.8% of the respondents. Another 21.3% said they sometimes read in Maltese, 29.4% never read in Maltese, and 15.5% frequently or always read Maltese materials.

Both generation and area of residence were found to have an effect on the frequency of reading in Maltese. While only 22.6% of the first generation never read in Maltese, 53.3% of the second generation never read in Maltese. Some 20% of the residents in or near Toronto never read in Maltese, while 55.6% of those living elsewhere never read in Maltese.

The most frequent reason given for reading Maltese materials were to learn news or information from Malta. The most frequent reason given for not reading Maltese materials was that the respondent could not read Maltese or could not read Maltese easily. Of the 34 who gave this response, 17 were first generation respondents who had learned Maltese as a first language. Many commented that they were never taught to read Maltese, although they spoke fluently. Others mentioned the difficulty of reading Maltese compared to speaking it.

Is the Maltese Language a Help or a Hindrance

Learning a second language no matter which one it is, is never a hindrance. Learning your own language, especially if you were born in Malta or Gozo and spent years on the Islands before emigrating should have been mandatory. I realize that it is mandatory however something seems to be missing in the importance it should be given. My heart constricts when I meet Maltese who emigrated in their late teens, twenties and thirties and speak Maltese poorly or none at all. My mind cannot begin to understand how this happens. In some instances I have met Maltese (from my home town Sliema) who do not speak Maltese and live in Malta.

When I meet some Maltese-Canadians in the community, they usually speak to me in English, whereas I who arrived in Canada at three years of age speak to them in Maltese.

This idea of "whatís the use of learning Maltese, its of no help to my future" is a weak statement. Maltese is part of our heritage and culture, one compliments the other. We should be proud to have our own distinctive tongue. Unfortunately we have become such a materialistic society that unless we are going to get something out of what we are learning it is not worth learning. Being a bilingual country Canada has two official languages Ė French and English. Many Maltese-Canadians will learn French because it will assist them in future job opportunities however they will not give Maltese a second thought.

The "language question" appears to still be an issue even on the Maltese Islands. How can migrants take pride in their language when the mother country itself has its doubts on the importance of Maltese?

Just as Maltese-Canadian television and newspapers are important in helping to reinforce the stability of the Maltese language and culture overseas, it is just as important to maintain a constant link with Malta.

It appears that the only publication from Malta which reaches migrant communities on a regular basis is Lil-”utna. It is published and distributed by the Emigrants Commission and its present editor is Father Lawrence Attard. Lil-”utna has a balanced mix of both Maltese and English articles covering communities from around the globe.

Maltaís Maltese (and English) newspapers are too expensive for some organizations overseas to subscribe to, books on the Islands, unless ordered by an organization do not reach the Canadian communities. In the mid-seventies a public library in Torontoís Junction wanted to order books on Malta and some in Maltese for their collection. Publishers in Malta did not respond to their requests.

The Librarian asked me to choose a number of books, purchase them and bring them back with me. I did for a number of years and their collection grew to over 100 books. Sadly in the early nineties, due to a lack of circulation this collection was reduced and moved to a central location.

The Melita Soccer Club at the moment has the best Maltese library in Ontario, the lending library is opens to the general public. St Paul the Apostle Church, the Maltese-Canadian Society of Toronto, the Malta Band Club and the Maltese Heritage Programme have some book available for borrowing.

If the Government of Malta (irrelevant of which political party is in power) is serious in its attempts in preserving the language and culture of Malta, not just on the Islands but overseas as well it must take a more responsible and active role. Educational books, videos and cassettes on Maltaís history and language should be made available by the Maltese Government to communities which show an interest in promoting Maltaís language and culture. These educational tools should be made attractive to interest children and youths in exploring, studying and learning their ancestral language. The Government should liaise with the communities on a regular and permanent basis in promoting Maltaís historical past, provide some type of basic language courses and current events. The channels already exists (Maltese organizations and religious bodies, Maltese Consulates and Maltese media). What is needed is a structured process where a constant communication link is maintained benefiting both migrants overseas and the people of Malta and Gozo.

The main responsibility however rests with the parents of Maltese children. They are the ones to set the foundation of learning. As you heard earlier many parents do not speak Maltese to their children. Even is only one of the parents is Maltese there is no reason not to speak Maltese to the child as well as to your spouse. As children, second and later generation Maltese-Canadians will not see the immediate value of learning bout their ancestors culture and language. However as adults they may regret not learning about Maltaís rich heritage and language. They may even feel that part of their identity is missing.

It would cost Maltese-Canadian parents (or parents in general) very little effort to simply speak Maltese to their children in early childhood (the formative years).

In closing I would like to add that if Maltese-Canadian parents brought their children up as Maltese-English bilinguals, the children would gain definite cognitive advantages, possibly self-identity advantages and would have lost nothing whatsoever.

Thank You.


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