The President of Malta

Foreign ambassadors for the Maltese language

Arnaud Bouvier (French teacher)
Andrea Di Vita (Italian chef)
Walid Nabhan (Palestinian scientist)
Jessica Schulz (Swedish researcher)
Veronika Sytnyk (law student)
Ema and Carla (secondary school students)

What have they got in common, aside from not being Maltese? Many of us may have caught a glimpse of them speaking Maltese on social media. They all chose to learn our language for various reasons, but primarily to be able to integrate better into our community, at the workplace, and in their daily lives.

The voices of these ambassadors for the Maltese language are part of a national campaign aimed at celebrating our language as the main thing that unites us and which gives us our identity. It is also intended to raise awareness about the balanced usage of Maltese and English within the various spheres of public life along with Maltese Sign Language, Malta’s third official language.

The campaign ‘l-ilsien Malti għal qalbi’, launched by the Office of the President of Malta and the Maltese language organisations, addresses a number of themes and was introduced with the aim of abandoning the notion that the Maltese language is for Maltese people only. Our language belongs to whoever lives in Malta – regardless of their country of origin – but not only them.

The Maltese language still thrives amongst the many communities of Maltese people living in the UK, Australia, the United States, Canada, Brussels, and Luxembourg, among others. Besides this, both Maltese language and literature are taught overseas: at the Malta Centre in Bremen, Germany; at Inalco, the university of oriental languages and civilizations in France; and within other Maltese emigrant groups.

Through the years, there have been several foreign scholars who have shown an interest in Maltese and, thanks to their curiosity about the language, studied it and recognised its rich blend. Going as far back as the Knights Hospitaller, we know of Hieronymus Megiser (German), Jean-François de Vion Thezan (French), Philip Skippon (English), and Francesc de Sentmenat-Torrelles (Catalan). At the start of British rule, there were Heinrich Gesenius (German), John Hookham Frere (English), James Somerville (Scottish), George Percy Badger (English), and Christoph Friedrich Schlienz (German). In the 20th century, there were Hans Stumme, Theodor Nöldeke and Bertha Kössler-Ilg (all German); Nahum Slouschz (Russian), Edmund Sutcliffe (English), Charles Louis Dessoulavy (Swiss-English), May Butcher (English), Giuseppe Maria Barbera (Sicilian), Yukio Isigaki (Japanese), Ahmed Talāt Sulaimān (Arab), Benedikt Isserlin (German), Geoffrey Hull (Australian), Martine Vanhove (French), Svetislav L. Stojanovic (Serbian), and Thomas Stolz (German). The list goes on.

In order to learn Maltese, Jessica Schulz, an ambassador who participated in this campaign, used grammar books to help her understand how the language functions. She practised pronunciation through reading and listening to dialogue and narratives. Whilst studying Maltese in Scotland, she spent a great deal of time listening to spoken Maltese on the radio and television, particularly children’s programmes. She took online lessons once a week and, from one lesson to the next, she would revise new words and expressions, work on construction of basic sentences, and practise spontaneous conversation.

There are others who, like Jessica, have adopted Maltese and who have taken learning the language seriously. Today, we recognise them as ambassadors not merely of language, but also literature. Walid Nabhan began writing literary works and in 2017 received the EU Prize for Literature for a novel written in Maltese, L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji (Exodus of the Storks).He has also translated a number of Maltese works into Arabic. Similarly, Yana Psaila has translated into Maltese poems by Russian writers such as Alexander Pushkin, Boris Pasternak, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. She has also translated into Russian a selection of poems by Dun Karm as well as Sfidi and Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa (The Secret Life of Nanna Ġenoveffa), both novels by Trevor Zahra. In 2014, she published a Russian-Maltese phrase book.

These people teach us a very important lesson: the Maltese language is beautiful and valuable because it reflects our country’s history. They also remind us that to keep our language alive and useful in our daily lives, we ought to use it within various work spheres and develop the necessary terminology for these spheres. We must also ensure that the language is passed on to our children by speaking, reading, and singing to them in Maltese. When speaking to children only in English, we deprive them of a crucial aspect of their identity. In so doing, we remove an important part of ourselves, which leads them to believe that Maltese need not be a part of themselves either. Finally, these people invite us to respond in Maltese whenever they make an effort to speak our language to us. Even if their grasp of the language is basic and intonation is not perfect, speaking – slowly – in Maltese will give them the opportunity to practise within various contexts which leads to better integration into our society.

Nowadays, we are fortunate that many foreigners have a genuine interest in learning the Maltese language. Amongst these are doctors, nurses, carers, and other employees whose work entails coming into direct contact with the public. The courses offered, pre-eminently by the Department of Maltese at the University of Malta, are fantastic initiatives. Nevertheless, it is crucial to develop more digital resources for foreign adults and devise an accreditation system in line with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages to encourage Maltese language learning through a standardised approach.

Joe Borg is a lecturer in Maltese and is the Secretary of L-Akkademja tal-Malti. 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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