9.2 Maltese Language

An important question is: How is Maltese Language faring, and what is to become of it?

When they first came to Australia, as British subjects, they were proud to say that they spoke English. And indeed, in comparison with the vast majority of migrants from Italy, Greece, Lebanon and Eastern Europe, they had a smattering of English which enabled them to do their shopping, use public transport and see to other basic necessities of life.

There is no reason to believe however that the vast majority spoke anything but Maltese at home. The number of Maltese who prefer to speak to their children in English, (which is common in certain city dwellers in Malta), would not be large, and would be more likely to be associated with the migrants who came to Australia in the late 1970s and early 80s. These latter had a considerably longer education (in Malta) and considered that monolingualism is somehow beneficial to their children.

The degree of language shift in the first generation was much more marked in those places where the number of Maltese was not large enough to maintain contact with other Maltese-language speakers.

Language maintenance in the second generation is, however, much more of a problem. A considerable proportion of the second generation now have one parent who is not Maltese-speaking. All Australian-born children, but particularly those with one non Maltese parent, are likely to speak only English. Thus the degree of language shift among the Maltese is one of the highest among all ethnic groups. It is a very real fact of life that at this rate, the use of Maltese language will disappear as the cohort of Maltese-born migrants disappear.

This problem is compounded by the lack of teaching in Maltese and the lack of importance that the written word has for the average Maltese. Permanence would obviously be enhanced if there were a strong group of persons who though they may not speak the language at least were able to read it. This holds for "high prestige" language like French and German, where ability to read the literature is prized for its own sake. Very few Maltese, however, read any Maltese literature. Although the number of public libraries that hold a significant amount of books is increasing, the number of books that are borrowed and read by the Maltese is very limited. The largest lending library of Maltese books in Australia is situated at the Maltese Community Centre in Parkville, Victoria, where over 2000 books are available for borrowing. The number actually borrowed, however, is only a small fraction of videos borrowed over the same period, even though the number of books exceed that of videos by ten to one. The readership of Maltese newspapers in Australia is likewise not large (see Frendo, 1989). This emphasizes the fact that, as for other members of the public, reading books is not the past-time it used to be, and most prefer the more immediate satisfaction of TV viewing. It also suggests strongly that it would be much easier to keep cultural contacts through video than through the printed media.

Why teach Maltese language at all? Many would dispute the value of teaching one's children the language, seeing that it is of no great economic value to the country. Many confuse the issue with English teaching, or compare it to other European or Eastern languages. All these comparisons are fatuous and misleading. There is no question that learning English is of paramount importance for the migrant considering settling in Australia. The problems associated with this lack of emphasis on English teaching is even now being seen - many aging people, particularly widowed women, find themselves unable to communicate adequately having lost their partner who was most often the spokesman for the family. There is also no question that learning languages, almost any language, is an investment which should be encouraged. The point one is making is to teach Maltese not instead of but in addition to other languages. The number of students in secondary schools learning any foreign language is pathetically small compared to any country in Europe or the East. it is not sufficiently realised that monolingualism is a prerogative of the English-speaking world and not at all the norm. It is arguable that the vast majority of educated peoplein the world today can speak more than one language or dialect.

The economic value of learning Maltese language has been underestirnated. As Lo Bianco emphasizes, lea - rning a language opens new cultural vistas not seen by the monolinguist. Educationally, it prepares one psychologically for the acceptance of other languages and other mores, and it is likely therefore to make the multilinguist less self-centred and territorial in outlook. in more pragmatic terms, a number of ethnic communities, have used their native language to boost their overall mark at Year 12 (matriculation) level thus having an edge in the race for places at a tertiary institutions - no Maltese have done this. And finally, jobs are and will be advertised that require a knowledge of Maltese for interpreting, translating or merely as a desirable qualification in such Professions as nursing, social work etc. It will be extremely difficult to fill these positions in the future when they will be most required.

Source: Maurice N. Cauchi - Maltese Migrants in Australia, Malta 1990

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