2. The Maltese Language in Australia

...language proficiency is composed of underlying abilities, knowledge systems, and skills (Chomsky 1980)

Language, education, and poverty, as well as prejudice, kept the immigrants off the mainstream (Bloom 1986)

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. (Wittgenstein)

The ability to communicate freely is an essential pre-requisite for successful settlement. As Oliver Sacks said about deaf persons: "... to be defective in language, for a human being, is one of the most desperate of calamities, for it is only through language that we enter fully into our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows, acquire and share information. If we cannot do this, we will be bizarrely disabled and cut off - whatever our desires, or endeavors, or native capacities" (Sacks,1989 p 8).

Indeed there appear to be several similarities between the deaf person and the migrant who arrives in a new land with only a limited grasp of language, unable to communicate freely with fellow workers, or to follow what is going on in newspapers, radio and television. The result is that often enough, they, like deaf people, become second class citizens, looked down on, considered inferior and incapable of achieving the average level of performance. We might ask the same question about migrants that Abbe' Sicard asked a couple of hundred of years ago: "Why is the uneducated deaf person isolated in nature and unable to communicate with other men? Why is he reduced to this state of imbecility?...Why then does the deaf person remain stupid while we become intelligent?" (quoted in Sacks, 1989 p 14-15).

This perception of being 'stupid' is applicable to all those who somehow have been denied the opportunity to communicate on an equal level. Even Aristotle declared that to the extent that a person doesn't say anything, he is very much like a vegetable. It has nothing to do with innate intelligence, only with a perception that a particular person has withdrawn into himself or herself and cannot become involved in social discourse.

But a related question is this: to what extent does this lack of communication actually lead to a diminution of intellectual capabilities? Is a continued lack of verbal interaction conducive to a state of diminished "intelligence"? To what extent is actual speaking and interacting with the outside world (as opposed to the ability of using a language at home in a limited way) essential for continued mental health and development. As long ago as 1915, Hughlings Jackson, one of the best neurologists of his time, put it succinctly thus: "We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is part of thought." (see Sacks 1989 p 19). One might add, without speech, the thought process could never develop properly, and may deteriorate.

I well remember the story of my landlady which illustrates this point to some extent. She was a normally intelligent woman from Romania who married a Maltese sailor soon after the Second World War and settled in Malta, where of course nobody spoke Romanian. When I first met her, her knowledge of Maltese was very limited - enough to enable her to do basic shopping and carry on an elementary conversation. Her children and grandchildren preferred to speak English rather than Maltese - not an unusual event in a certain crust of society in Malta. When her husband died she followed her married children to Australia, where she found herself unable to speak English, Maltese or indeed her original Romanian. This complete isolation is not unlike that experienced by those who are completely isolated on a desert island, or indeed through deafness or some other calamity.

Like deaf people, those who cannot communicate in a foreign land suffer from what the psychologist Hans Furth called "information deprivation". The main reason for this is that they are not exposed to the normal sources of information, usually taken for granted and absorbed passively: daily conversation, chit-chat, discussion, news, and other basic items essential for forming opinions and ideas.

The ability for abstract thinking is primarily a language-dependent function. Without a proper grasp of language one is unable to conceptualise properly. It is therefore of interest to note that both the congenitally deaf people and migrants may suffer from the same sort of problem. For instance Emmanuel Gauci's study (1983) relating to the education of Maltese in Australia states that one of the biggest problems that he found was their lack of cognitive development. The migrant (like the deaf person) "does not possess all those forms of reflection which are realised through speech.... [He] is unable to form abstract concepts, to systematise the phenomena of the external world with the aid of abstracted signals furnished by language but which are not natural to visual, practically acquired experience." (Luria and Yudovich, 1968, quoted in Sacks 1989 p 43)

A good grasp of the host language is particularly important during the first few days and months of arrival in a foreign land, but remains crucial throughout, and is essential in ensuring a smooth settlement process.

A life in translation

A migrant's life is essentially one of continuous translation: translation of words, ideas, concepts transferred from one language to another, from the host language to the original language and back again. Often, as in the case of migrants to Australia, this means translation from a modern language capable of dealing with all the most recent advances in science and technology to one which is archaic and has not yet caught up with these advances. Even if exact matching words were available in both languages, it is difficult to be sure that the same meaning is being passed on from speaker to listener.

The Italians have a saying which summarises it all: 'traduttore, traditore', meaning that the translator is a traitor to one language or the other (or both!). Even professionally trained persons may be guilty of this. The philosopher Martin Heidegger for instance claimed that translation is impossible . Even if exact terminology was available in both languages, and both speaker and listener were equally fluent in the language of communication, but were of different ethnic background, it is doubtful if it can be said that communication is at the same level as that between persons of the same ethnic background. As Iris Murdoch (1992 p 200) puts it "Translation between natural languages, or between variant areas in one's own language, is difficult because one language?system may generate words, concepts, which the other lacks."

Even if the listener can cope with the flow of foreign words and concepts, s/he may find it difficult to find the right contextual words and phrases to express his/her thoughts in language commensurate with the speaker's level of understanding. This holds even for persons who reached the highest levels of intellectual prowess in their own language, and applies with greater force to those who have not reached such heights. Witness for instance the cri du coer from a person as fluent as Vladimir Nobokov (1994):

    I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second?rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses... which the native illusionist can magically use to transcend the heritage.

He reflects on the great sense of frustration that this is bound to create. He remarked, "I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child." (see Pinker, 1994: p 291). Such difficulties hold almost equally for the written as for the spoken word, as no less an authority than Wittgenstein acknowledges: "Please try to understand it before you criticize it... To write in a foreign language makes it more difficult." (quoted in Monk, 1990 p 268).

Language is much more than a means of communication: it is a complete and total reflection of the lives and mores of the particular community. This has been emphasised by a number of thinkers from Heidegger who says that : "Language is the house of Being" to Wittgenstein who stated that: "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world". Richard Rorty moreover reminds us that all truth claims are made in language which is always learned by human beings in a particular historical and cultural context. Transferred to a different context, a native language learned in childhood may be found to be inadequate and insufficient.

Children and Parents speaking a Foreign Tongue

To a large extent, a child's perception of the outside world and its values are transmitted through its parents, at least during the first few years of life, which are the most relevant from the character-forming point of view. For the first few years, the parent is god. It is unfortunate therefore that over the next decade or so, and particularly in a foreign environment, this god is ignominiously dethroned and debased.

Daniel Bell, the intellectual offspring of Jewish emigrants in New York was probably expressing the feelings of a large number of second generation children of immigrants when he said that "most of this generation, including myself, were ashamed of our parents" (see Bloom,1986, p 21). Sooner or later children will notice that their parents 'speak funny' and are somehow different. They all pass through the stage described by Podhoretsz (in Bloom 1986, p 20): "The idea of Mrs K meeting my mother was more than I could bear: my mother, who spoke with a Yiddish accent and of whom, until that sickening moment, I had never known I was ashamed and so ready to betray."

With this realisation sooner or later comes the conclusion that the culture of the parents (and not just their grasp of the foreign language) is also somehow inferior to that of the host country. It is during such a time that the unconscious decision is made to ditch the original ethnic culture of one's own family and immerse oneself in the host culture, making oneself invisible so to speak, and as close to the dominant culture as one possibly can.

The parents' own assessment of the value of their first language is also relevant. While some ethnic communities have a high opinion of their first language and are determined to use it at every opportunity, others have been ashamed to be heard speaking it. For some it is a means of keeping contact with the old country . Frederic Chopin, the famous pianist and composer from Poland who spent most of his life in Paris says: " You may think it insignificant, but one's greatest solace in a foreign land is to have someone who carries one's thoughts back to the homeland every time one looks at him, talks to him or listens to his words." (Zamoyski, p 147). This yearning leads to inner conflict and confusion. While most migrants would agree with Chopin, and yearn for a corner of the old country with its language, habits and practices, yet many find that these cannot function as well on a foreign soil. And while the first generation may cling to the old, the second are more likely to ditch it all for a new beginning in the host country.

Perhaps the most significant factor in encouraging first language loss is the degree of inter-marriage , whether with the partners of the host country or with other migrants with whom the only common language is English. In practice this has meant that the children of such a marriage would have enormous pressures to speak the common language, English, and they are hardly ever exposed to the language of either of the parents.

The presence of a grandparent serves as a stimulus to maintain the original language. Very often they have a poor grasp of English and find it very difficult to master it sufficiently to enable them to speak effectively. Moreover, grandchildren somehow accept the fact that they have to speak their original language with grandma even when they have stopped using it to communicate with anyone else. Isolation, distance or other factors which interfere with this line of communication with grandparents is quite likely to hasten language loss - a factor which has not been given sufficient attention in the literature.

Another factor relates to the perceived advantages of having one's children well immersed in English rather than in the particular ethnic language. Many Maltese parents have insisted that their children learn English rather than Maltese from fear of language-conflict in the mind of the child. They have even gone so far as to prefer another European language (such as Italian) to Maltese as a second language option at school.

In summary, a number of factors may be responsible for hastening language and culture loss in the second generation:

  • lack of pride in original language and culture of the parents
  • a high intermarriage rate which necessitates speaking host language even at home;
  • shame of belonging to a culture which appears second-rate to children
  • desire to integrate with other children and not appear different
  • lack of facilities to learn original language, due to:
  • lack of funds/provision
  • preference by parents for a second
  • lack of support from home country

Maltese Language Usage in Australia

According to the 1996 census in Australia, the number of persons speaking Maltese at home has been assessed as being 44,674. This is considerably less than the absolute number of persons in the first generation, and implies that at most 88% of the Malta-born persons speak Maltese at home.

Australia-born children of Maltese-migrants have not completely lost the facility of speaking Maltese. Many children of Maltese migrants would be capable of understanding Maltese but not be able to speak, read or write it. These persons would automatically be excluded by the census question relating to what language is spoken at home. (Note: the precise wording of the census question in 1996 was "Does the person speak a language other than English at home?" This would exclude a number of persons who would not admit to speaking it even though, most second generation, and even a considerable proportion of third generation children, would understand Maltese to some extent. See Appendix for further details.)

Language Maintenance and Shift

Cahill states that "minority groups have great difficulty in maintaining their language in the face of a dominant language, especially if it is internationally prestigious as English." (Cahill 1996 p 50). Clyne (1991) has made several references to 'language shift' and loss of language use by children of Maltese-background, highlighting Maltese and Dutch as being the two ethnic groups most susceptible in this respect. Like dialect speakers, perhaps they may feel the 'uselessness' of their language more strongly than those who speak a well established and respected language, and therefore are more prone to lose their L1 in their attempt to master L2. There may even be a correlate between multi-linguality in the original (L1) country and degree of LS in the second country - again Dutch and Maltese are typical examples. Finally, it is also possible that those persons who had to use a foreign (international) language as their 'lingua franca' in their day-to- day communication, may be specially conditioned, and they find it easier to jettison their native language when they migrate to a foreign land. This is the case in Malta where English is considered as a second language of communication.

The following factors have been shown to have a (varying) effect on language shift (Kipp et al. 1995):

A. Individual Factors.

  • birthplace: Shift is greater in second generation compared to first
  • Age: younger persons learn a new language easily, and have less ties with the original (L1) community.
  • Period of residence: the longer the residence the bigger the chance of language shift.
  • Gender: men show a larger LS than females.
  • Education/qualifications: sometimes, the higher the qualifications, the greater the shift (Kloss 1966)
  • exogamy (out-marriage): increases LS
  • Knowledge of English before migration: an ambivalent factor - sometimes it increases LS, sometimes it helps retention of L1
  • reason for migration: 'political' migrants may retain L1 better
  • Language variety: some languages ('dialect-speakers') are more likely to have LS.

B. Group Factors:

  • Size and distribution of ethnic group: linguistic enclaves (Kloss: 'sprachinseln') promote retention of L1. The larger the concentration of speakers of L1, the less the LS
  • Policy of the host community towards community languages, self identity (Clyne 1991), and political factors at home.- Position of language within the cultural value system of the ethnic group. ('core value' theory which states that a "language has a more crucial position in some cultures and ethnic groups than in others " (see Kipp et al 1995. p 129)- According to Clyne, "(1991, p 33): "Greek and Serbo-Croat speakers believe more firmly in the societal benefits of language maintenance than do German, Maltese or Dutch speakers). The same may be said of the newer migrants from SE Asia.
  • Closeness or distance of the community language to or from English. Closeness favours LS (Kloss, 1966). In the case of Maltese, there are no close language relationships, yet the long historical association makes for close affinity between the two cultures.

Relevant also in this contest is the concept of 'ethnolinguistic vitality' (Giles, 1977): which comprises: economic status, self-perceived social status, socio-historic factors, status of language, demographic factors such as numbers, group distribution and institutional support (Kipp et al. 1995 p 128).

Language Shift among the Maltese in Australia

Between 1976 and 1986, the number of speakers of Maltese rose from 45,922 to 59,506). This shows "an important increase", and, according to Clyne, points to a language "revival". Clyne says:

The decade ending in 1986 has seen a marked increase in Maltese language maintenance efforts, with the establishment of ethnic Saturday schools, the introduction of Higher School Certificate, Maltese language programs in primary schools, and the development of radio programs. Many adults of Maltese descent have learned (or relearned) their parent's language, and Maltese community leaders in Melbourne and Sydney, some of whom play a leading role in inter-ethnic organisations, have followed other large ethnic groups in pressing for better language maintenance facilities. 'Melbourne is the largest Maltese city in the world' has joined 'Melbourne is the third largest Greek city in the world' as one of the myths of Australian multiculturalism. At the time when most Maltese migrants came to Australia, there was a diglossic relationship between Maltese and English in Malta, that is, Maltese was the mother tongue and language of everyday interaction and English was the formal and status language in Malta. . English was used in public domains, and many migrants were literate in English rather than in Maltese. As British subjects with a good knowledge of English, Maltese were accorded privileged status in Australia and associated little with other immigrant groups. This was probably still reflected in responses to the 1976 Census. By 1986 the impact of multiculturalism and the government's financial support for it was felt, and people freely declared the use of Maltese. Visits to and from Malta, where Maltese has displaced English in most formal domains, has contributed to the ethnolinguistic vitality of the Maltese-Australian community, especially in Melbourne and Sydney. (Clyne 1991, p 45)

This concept of "ethnic revival", says Clyne provides a challenge to the 'core value' theory of Smolicz. He asks: "If previously, say, Maltese was not a core value in Maltese culture, can it suddenly become one because of the impact of Australian attitudes? Does it mean that the Maltese cultural core value system has changed? Or that language has become a core value in Maltese-Australian culture?" (Clyne, 1991 p 104)

In contrast to most other ethnic groups, the proportion of Maltese-speakers who could read or write their language was disproportionately low. In 1983, only 48.4% Maltese speakers could read Maltese, and only 45.2% could write it (ABS Survey , 1983, see Clyne, 1991 p 53). This, according to Clyne, p 53), is due to low pre-migration status of the language in Malta. It is also directly related to the relatively high illiteracy rate in Malta, where even in the last census (1995) the illiteracy rate in some localities in Malta was as high as 25%, and in those over the age of 50, it is over 40% (see Cauchi, 1998). In the younger generation in Malta the illiteracy rate is now just over 5%.

A measure of language shift is the proportion of speakers in an original native language (L1) who have stopped using that language to adopt another, usually the (host) language (L2). The degree of language shift among the Maltese in 1983 was estimated as 26.6% (1983 ABS Survey data - see Clyne,1991, p 55.). Language shift (in the first generation) was least for Victoria (22.2%) and NSW (25.6%), and most for Tasmania (74.4%), WA (55.3%), Queensland 44.1%), (Census 1986), supporting the claim that the larger the ethnic group the less the language shift. Clyne says: "In the first generation the ethnolinguistic revival has lowered the shift from Maltese... (1991 p 68).

The reasons for language shift summarised above (Kipp et al 1995) hold for the Maltese community as can be illustrated below:

Period of Residence and LS (in first generation migrants): For those resident less than 15 years, the LS was under 20 %. For those resident for 15-30 years, the LS was around 22%. However, those resident for 30-39 years had a marked LS of 31.2% and those resident 40 years and longer had a LS of 37.3%. This again confirms a correlation between length of residence and LS, but it looks as if there is a very long threshold of 15 - 20 years before a jump in LS occurs. (Clyne, 1991 p 76)

Age and LS : In 1986, the greatest LS among Maltese occurred in the age-group 15-44 years old, where there was a LS of up to 35%. In the younger age group, the LS was around 24-28%, and in the older age group LS was below 20%.(1986 census - Clyne, 1991 p 80). By comparison, in 1976, the LS was around 40% in children below 15 years of age (see Clyne, 1991, p 256). As Clyne put it: " ...children act as agents of language shift, whereas grandparents (especially the overseas-born) are catalysts of community language use." (Clyne, 1991, p 114)

Intermarriage (Out-marriage): A considerable proportion of Maltese-born marry a non-Maltese person. The proportion varied from 34% in the immediate post-war period to 65% in the early 1980s. In the second generation, this increased further to 75% (Clyne, 1991, p 59). [It is of interest to compare this with other ethnic groups: the rate of 2nd generation inter-marriage varied from a low of 2.3% for Hungary, 3% for Germany, 5% for Netherlands, to 37% for Greece and 52% for Turkey. (Clyne, 1991, p 59)].

Language shift in the second generation is considerably affected by inter-marriage. In both 1976 and 1986 census data there is a marked increase in LS in children of exogamous marriages. By 1998 language shift in second generation Maltese background persons had reached 70% for endogamous and 93% for exogamous marriages (Kipp, 1999. See also 1999). In fact exogamy accounts for a difference of LS of 40.9% in 1976 and 28.0% in 1986. In other words, LS is between 30 - 40 % more common in the offspring of exogamous compared to endogamous marriages. This is the common pattern for other ethnic groups.

Gender Differences: In general one expects a larger LS in males than in females, in either first or subsequent generations. For Maltese, gender difference is more marked for the 1st generation than for the second. The LS in the first generation was 28.4% in males and 23.3% in females, a difference of 5.1 % (1986 Census, -see Clyne, 1991 - 256).

LS and State: The greatest LS in the second generation occurred in the states with smaller number of migrants, as follows: Victoria (53.1%), NSW (62.0%), Queensland (72.6%), West Australia (73.1%), S. Australia (70.3%), ACT (74.1%), overall (58.8%) (1986 Census, Clyne, 1991 p 82). This is also in conformity with expectation that the larger States with a larger population will experience a smaller degree of LS.

Language and Academic Achievement

A good grasp of language is an essential pre-requisite for obtaining maximal benefit from education, particularly at tertiary level. Often lack of achievement is at least partly due to difficulty of understanding the written text or the spoken language.

Recent research seems to point to certain findings relating to language proficiency testing which seem relevant to the assessment of language use by migrants. In general, migrants lacking a good grasp of the English language may perform poorly academically.

  1. Certain individuals (often members of language minority groups) have been miss-classified as having language disorders and "linguistic deficits"
  2. Certain students who have studied a second language do not perform well on tests requiring use of the second language for 'authentic communication' outside such classroom settings.
  3. Certain second language learners who perform well on tests requiring authentic communication in the second language may lack the language skills required to perform 'academically-oriented autonomous tasks' - such as solving mathematical problems - presented in the second language." (Canale, 1984)

Other evidence seems to suggest that language proficiency is also crucial in attaining good cognitive and academic skills. While some sociolinguists (e.g. Labov, 1969, Shuy, 1979) have claimed that cognitive and academic performance are independent of language skills, most other studies seem to imply the reverse, being "preponderantly in favor of the assumption that language skill pervades every area of the school curriculum even more strongly than was ever thought by curriculum writers or testers " (Oller & Perkins 1980).

The confusion, according to Cummins (1984) seems to be related to the level of assessment one is dealing with. He states: "a major reason for the confused state of the art of language assessment in bilingual programs... stems from the failure to develop an adequate theoretic framework for relating language proficiency to academic achievement".

He considers that language attainment should be assessed at two distinct levels:

  1. basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS)
  2. cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP)

He considers that these two threshold levels of linguistic proficiency are relevant at different levels. "The first, lower, threshold must be attained by bilingual children in order to avoid cognitive disadvantages, and the second, higher, threshold was necessary to allow the potentially beneficial aspects of bilingualism to influence cognitive growth" (Cummins p 3). Others distinguish three levels of language proficiency: linguistic competence, communicative competence, and analytic competence.

To be noted also that acquiring skills in a second language takes a considerable time even for young immigrant children - up to one-and-a -half to two years. Moreover, "it took students who arrived in Canada after the age of six, 5-7 years, on the average to approach grade norms in academically-related aspects of English proficiency" (Cumins, 1984, p 9). Cummins state that "a number of studies have shown that older immigrant children (10-12 years old), whose academic proficiency (e.g. literacy skills) in L1 [their original language] was well-established, developed L2 [the host language] academic proficiency more rapidly than younger immigrant students. They also attained higher levels of L1 academic proficiency." (Cummins p3)

One criticism of this approach is that academic proficiency is based on other factors than cognitive skills and linguistic ability. Such considerations ignore the broader social context which could be just as relevant.

Rudoph Troike (see Rivera 1984 p 44) argues that cultural and social factors are at least as important in accounting for difference in academic achievement. Lambert (1975) makes the point that bilingualism can sometimes be a positive advantage while at other times may hinder the acquisition of necessary social and academic skills. He distinguishes between "additive bilingualism" and "subtractive bilingualism" to distinguish between these two possibilities. He states that "As is increasingly coming to be recognized, all testing is a social (and usually sociolinguistic... ) event", and that, moreover, there are "great variations in the extent to which individuals will be found to have mastered interpersonal communicative skills." (p 46). Many factors, he claims, can have an impact on the perceived intellectual ability of a child, including

  1. "just changing motivation/incentive structures" which he says "can produce improved reading achievement scores." ;
  2. "knowledge of the world": Since this often correlates with socio-economic status (SES), reading achieve-ment scores and school achievement generally are not surprisingly closely linked in many situation to SES, so much so that Karl Deutsch is reputed to have once said, 'Tell me the father's income and I'll tell you the student's grades in school.'
  3. "Teachers' expectations regarding student achievement become translated into self-fulfilling prophesies through differential treatment of students and perceptions of student performance". This is the so called ' Pygmalion effect'.

He concludes that cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP) and intelligence "may be simple indicators of acculturation rather than of an independent mental ability" (p 49), and that "social and cultural factors may be much more powerful than purely linguistic factors in influencing educational achievement, and, indeed, that the linguistic factors may be simply a second or third order reflection of the social and cultural context of schooling." (p 49)

It is difficult to disentangle and prioritise the various factors that bear on this issue, to ensure that the child is put in the right environment and given the correct stimulation and encouragement to achieve his or her maximum potential. Certainly no single factor will be found to be adequate to explain the phenomenon of achievement of lack of it.. And while these factors hold for all children, they are particularly relevant to the children who find themselves in a foreign land speaking a foreign language to complete strangers.

In summary, academic achievement may be seen to be dependent on the following factors:

  • Basic interpersonal communicative skills as a necessary and minimum requirement,
  • More advanced "cognitive-academic language proficiency,
  • these in turn are dependent on:
  • "Knowledge of the world",
  • Socio-economic status (SES),
  • Teacher expectations and "Pygmalion effect",
  • Social and cultural factors.


It is doubtful whether a language can survive when cut off from its original roots, particularly when there is no replenishment of new blood from the old country. One also wonders at times whether maintenance of the language spoken by grandparents would be of any particular benefit to the future generations of Australians who have a Maltese ancestry. Many no doubt will remember and say : " my people came from Malta" but that would most likely be the sum total of the extent of the Maltese connection.

On the other hand, for the next couple of decades at least, there will still be those who depend on the Maltese language and culture for their modus vivendi. It is the only culture they know and the only language they can speak with any fluency. The number of these elderly persons is decreasing but their reliance on Maltese language and ethno-specific services is increasing as they grow older and find themselves isolated in homes for the aged.

The value of Maltese language and culture in providing a firm platform for the young generation from which to spring to other pastures is also diminishing. One must not exaggerate the enormity of this loss, which has to be balanced by the considerable gain resulting from other cultural interests by which it is replaced. To many of these second- and subsequent generation Australians, Maltese is only part of their heritage, to be shared with other vast heritages which makes the mosaic of Australian culture today. .

Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

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