To learn or not to learn Maltese, that is the question. A question, we’ve had several emails on from wannabe expats to Malta. Since English is an official language here and a world language for business, do expats need to bother? Do those who do attempt to learn Maltese do so for work, out of curiosity and academic interest, or to understand the local culture more?
We spoke to two expats about their attitudes to learning Maltese, its usefulness in their daily lives here and their experiences learning the language. Amanda is a British and moved here with British husband and three young daughters. Phil has a Maltese wife and moved to Malta around four years ago; he also has a young daughter. On paper, even working, neither needed Maltese to get along. But both chose to have a go, with varying degrees of success. Read on for why…and if you want to learn, check the further info at the article end.
Amanda’s Maltese language learning story
Q. Before moving to Malta did you research the language question to work out whether you needed Maltese to get along here?
I just took it as a given that I, and the rest of the family, would learn the language. I see part of being in a country, and being a good guest in that country, as at least attempting to communicate in the local language.
I did order a CD-rom of Maltese to start learning before we arrived.
Q. Since Malta is officially bilingual, what really prompted you to start learning Maltese?
I love languages, often they can be a window on to the culture of a country, but of course when people move to a new country, they have a massive amount on their plate. I have a deep rooted belief that anyone going to another country should do whatever they can to make themselves feel comfortable in the country. In the part of Malta I live (Dingli), Maltese is very much the daily language. But in reality, I hadn’t done anything about it until my kids started at school. The teacher said that if I learned it would help me to support the kids’ learning. So, as is so often the case, a mixture of motivations.
Q. What route to learning did you take? Private lessons or group courses? And where did you learn?
Group lessons in the local council offices. I was the only foreigner; the lessons were Maltese literacy, so in reality, really useful for helping my daughter with homework, much less so for buying groceries and asking for directions (both of which I have attempted on many occasions with people who don’t speak English).
Q. How did you find the teaching material? Outdated or useful? And what about the approach?
The first year of lessons, the material wasn’t up to much – photocopied, very basic, often ancient. But then some new books came out, Sisien, which were great, targeted at adults, lots of re-enforcement of day-to-day vocabulary, workbook to accompany the text book, lots of chances for discussion. Beyond anything else, the lessons were a great way to get to know more about life in Malta, as so many subjects were covered in the books and the discussion. My teachers have been great; very keen to ensure I get something out of the lessons.
Q. How has knowing some Maltese enhanced your experience of living in Malta?
I have gained a lot of access to the culture, natural history etc of Malta through learning Maltese, but not necessarily through being competent enough to talk or read about it by myself! Despite many lessons, my level is extremely basic, mostly because it is so easy to get by in English. I believe the major advantage is being able to follow the side conversations in meetings, at shops etc and not feel totally excluded or paranoid that you are being cheated or talked about. Usually the side conversations are very pedestrian. It’s also nice to be able to share a (very simple) joke in the language – it always makes people smile, doubtless due to my appalling accent.
Q. What advice would you give a potential expat about learning Maltese?
I would always say make the effort to learn the language. People will tell you Maltese is difficult, but any language is until you put the time in to get to grips with it. You can live here using only English, obviously, and Maltese may seem of limited use. But I’ve learnt Spanish (spoken by millions across the world) and Indonesian (spoken by 200 million in Indonesia), and the language I’ve found the most useful over the years is Italian, so it isn’t always a numbers game….
Phil’s Maltese language learning story
Q. Did you feel the need to learn Maltese when you knew you were moving to the Islands?
I was certainly open to learning Maltese. I lived in Italy for seven years and became fluent after around three, but learning by doing rather than through study, but I lived in a more non-English speaking environment. I lived in Portugal for three years and learned some basic Portuguese by study, it was more difficult as I lived in a more English speaking environment. I arrived here expecting to learn Maltese, and being curious to do so.
Q. What was your understanding of the use of Maltese vis-a-vis English on the islands and how did that colour your attitude to learning Maltese?
I felt that in my position at work it was useful to learn, as I was managing both Maltese and foreign staff. The Maltese appreciated my trying, and found it amusing. When giving a team briefing, I tried to end with a different Maltese expression each time, and to keep it clean!
Q. Did you start learning Maltese at the start here or later?
I have tried only a bit – actually I am disappointed at how unnecessary it is, and how little support there is. Many Maltese would rather I didn’t try and just speak English.
My daughter has fun teaching me some things. I am keen that she speaks good Maltese but we speak English at home (her Mum is Maltese), but she continues to speak Maltese with the family and spends plenty of time with Nana and Nanu. The language would help me to integrate with the rest of the Maltese family; this should act as a motivator !
Q. Were you motivated?
I was motivated, yes. I tried MCAST at Paola and found it difficult to get to in the evening because of the traffic, but it seemed poorly structured and lessons were often cancelled. Some people I know completed the course and were happy, but I dropped out not too long into the course.
I tried to register for a local Sliema course this time starting in October at the local council. The browser I use wouldn’t enable me to register, after five emails a contact there informed me I was registered but Ihaven’t heard anything since. I have also looked for a decent audio course and failed to find one so far…….
Q. Has your knowledge of the language stood you in good stead so far for life in Malta?
I am unsure if any Maltese really makes a difference to my life in Malta; I seem to get by perfectly well without. I think this is unfortunate and means that I probably need to make much more of an effort to learn this language than those of the other countries I lived in.
Q. What advice would you give incoming expats about the need to learn Maltese?
If you want to do it you will need to make extraordinary efforts to learn. I think that the Local Councils need to make it much easier for us to learn.
Where to Learn Maltese as a Foreigner
Local Councils – some offer Maltese literacy (not specifically for foreigners) and others Maltese lessons devised for foreign language learners. A list of all local councils is on the government website here. The search function and info on Local Councils is Maltese even if you opt for ‘English’ when accessing gov.mt! Choose ‘dettalji kif tista’ under the fourth menu header ‘Il-Kuntatjana’ after selecting your local council from the drop down list.
MCAST – we didn’t see Maltese on its course lists for 2011-12, but check by contacting MCAST (Malta Council for Arts, Science & Technology) here.
German-Maltese Circle offers what seem highly practical evening courses from October. Emphasis is on conversation ‘no grammar, text books or exams’! For students aiming for basic conversational Maltese for work and leisure.
Photo: Queen Victoria by Leslie Vella.
Ponto, I am surprised by you saying that (those Phoenicians) supressed the Maltese. The Phoenicians spread the alphabet and taught people trading. Kindly review your ideas about one of the greatest civilization that ever existed. All the best
I think it is pointless to learn Maltese. Maltese people like having a language no one understands, that goes for nearby Italians or North Africans. It is like gibberish to those near neighbors. The reason Maltese, an imported Sicilian Moorish language, has lasted in Malta and become its own is that it was a way of being able to speak with your fellows without the foreign overlords understanding a word. You cannot understand but Maltese people have been suppressed by foreigners basically since the time of those Phoenicians, never been able to basically tell these foreigners to bugger off, get lost. That isn’t to say Maltese people dislike foreigners just alien overlords.
I recently completed a lot of my genealogy. I am Maltese as Maltese people can get, had a very common Maltese surname until I dumped it. I don’t speak Maltese and won’t with anyone no matter the relationship. It is a totally unnecessary language for me, something people should learn like Ido or some obscure dialect no one speaks anymore like Cornish. I have returned to Malta twice, I live in Australia, and every time I have returned the natives speak to me in English. I guess that makes me a foreigner to them.
David O says
I’m originally from Ireland, and due to the nationalistically inclined nature of our education system, had to endure many years of Gaelic in school. Virtually none of which I can now remember. So have I tried to learn Maltese? Afraid not… except for a couple of handy phrases outlined in my blog:
I had a go when I first moved to Malta 6 years ago, by taking twice-weekly evening classes at a school in Mosta. The classes (taught in “school” style) didn’t seem overly difficult, but I found that it was very hard to put what I had learned into practice, due to the speed that people speak, and the limited ground we could cover in the classes.
The classes were run over 2 years though I quit at the end of year 1, deciding that I would fall back on my English and reclaim some leisure time. I don’t regret quitting – the work and leisure circles I move in tend to be international, and so English is the lingua franca.