The need for updated empirical research on the local language situation has long been felt. Years ago some studies were carried out, but there had not yet been a wide survey covering the use of language in different situations, from home to the workplace, and also studying the preferences of the Maltese people in various contexts, such as which version they prefer to read when receiving bilingual leaflets, or their preferred language to follow news on the internet and on print and broadcast media.
In recent years, our society has become more cosmopolitan because of the large influx of people from different countries and cultures. That is why having a recent picture makes it better for research and for strategic purposes. On a national level, many regular statistics are published on subjects such as property prices, the cost of living, the number of cinemagoers, and the number of books borrowed from public libraries. But quantitative information related to the language, unfortunately, is not published. This subject still feels less connected to the economic field, although upon careful consideration, one realises that it is not as disconnected as perhaps we preconceive. It was for this reason that the National Council for the Maltese Language joined forces with the Department of Maltese at the University to commission a survey with the National Statistics Office so that together they could fill this gap.
The survey is divided into two parts: it starts with an indication of the actual use of the language in different contexts of life and it then gives an insight into the public’s attitudes towards Maltese and English. Examining the main results, first, we find that 97% of Maltese youths and adults consider Maltese as their first language. This high percentage is consistent with the findings of two previous studies (Sciriha and Vassallo in 2001, and the MaltaToday newspaper in 2018). It also reflects, more or less, what emerged from the State of the Nation study carried out by the Office of the President of Malta in 2022. The survey also finds that Maltese complements English, especially in commerce, education, communication and daily life. In order to work, to offer services and products on the local market, and to succeed in your career and business locally, Maltese is and will remain important for communication with employers and clients.
Moreover, Maltese citizens use English in particular situations, but they would like to have more information, communication and entertainment in Maltese, though not to the detriment of English. Maltese seems to be used more in speaking and in informal contexts while English is used a lot in writing. This tendency can be balanced by strengthening skills in Maltese and English and, ideally, in a third language, as is recommended by the European Union. This should continue to take place in schools and with more accessible resources, such as style guides, formal writing models, and a spell-checker, all of which increase confidence in writing. The Proofreading Course in Maltese (MQF 5) organised by the Department of Maltese at the University and the National Council for the Maltese Language is greatly helping to increase awareness so that the Maltese language is written and is more visible in public together with English.
Most Maltese adults agree that Government websites, the correspondence and leaflets they receive at home, official forms and documents, and signs of buildings and public places should always be in Maltese and English. Another interesting factor emerging from the survey is that the participants consider that adverts in Maltese are more effective; a strong opinion that should reach local advertising agencies. Moreover, Maltese viewers and listeners prefer programmes in Maltese far more than in other languages. Maltese people would also like to hear more music in Maltese on local radios, something that has become possible thanks to the large number of musical groups that are writing and singing lyrics in Maltese in different genres.
It is important that this research continues, not only by running this survey again in a few years to note possible changes in certain trends, but also by studying other factors. Among these are the language use and preferences among children, the number of foreigners living among us who are learning Maltese and their language proficiency level, and the use of dialects. Having such updated quantitative results on the local language situation helps us to stop relying on the often-wrong impressions and preconceptions that we may have. The National Council for the Maltese Language and other entities in education, art and culture fields, among others, will also be able to use them as reference to suitably design their work and better address gaps and deficiencies which may be hindering the healthy development of our language in Malta together with English and Maltese Sign Language, our three official languages. Thus, we will also be able to better compare our situation with that of countries whose languages are used by a relatively small number of speakers like ours.
This survey was carried out at the end of 2020 on a sample of just over a thousand people aged between 18 and 80, with Maltese citizenship, from around Malta and Gozo. The margin of error is 3.1%. Scan this code for more information:
Thomas Pace is the Executive Director of the National Council for the Maltese Language and coproducer and copresenter of the radio programme ‘Seħer il-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.