My Maltese roots reach as far back as I can tell to Sliema, Birkirkara, Msida and Gozo, and I have always been fiercely proud of my heritage. Many members of my family emigrated when they were young in the 60s to London and Australia. I was born in London. Around this time, immigrants were encouraged to raise their children speaking English; however, I grew up very close to my mother’s parents who still spoke Maltese, so I was immersed in Maltese culture from an early age.
My fondest memories are tied to the Maltese language: from passionately singing along to popular tunes and anthems whilst celebrating our festa, to long doorstep chats with my friends. I remember first hearing għana, Maltese folk music, when my nanna would sing along to her record player. Our family would also sing It-Tifla tal-Kampanja which always had us laughing so much.
After recovering my birthright by gaining my citizenship, I started learning Maltese. My husband joined me and quickly fell in love with the language. Doing this brought us and my family closer together. At this time I discovered that my nannu’s cousin, Dr Anton Buttigieg, former President of Malta and famous poet, was a founding member of the Akkademja tal-Malti and won a prestigious literary award. So I was very happy to hear that I was connecting to one of my ancestors through our joint love for the Maltese language. My relatives are now scattered across the oceans, I still keep in contact with most of them and they speak to me in Maltese. I also write in Maltese to my cousin and to one of my friends in Malta, which helps me practise.
Expats are scattered throughout the UK, however many settled in London. I believe the Maltese Culture Movement (MCM) and the Maltese High Commission are the two organisations responsible for fostering the Maltese community in the UK. The MCM events bring us together brilliantly, and we always enjoy having a chat in Maltese.The Holy Mass and religious processions are always beautiful. Having more of these events will strengthen our community further. In fact, volunteering at these events is not only great fun but very important. One time, my family dressed up in traditional Maltese attire. I felt so proud to wear the għonnella in all its glory. It is heartwarming to come across older generations of expats talking to each other in Maltese at these gatherings. On such occasions my ears instantly prick up and I always go and say hello. Our language creates a special bond that unites us.
I believe families of expats should speak Maltese regularly whilst also teaching others. We should buy Maltese books as presents and write in Maltese wherever possible, even digitally, using Maltese language keyboard settings or apps. Whether the hobby is listening to music, watching a movie, reading a book or writing poetry, one should use Maltese as much as possible. Watching Holy Mass streamed in Maltese is another opportunity to expose oneself to the language. It is also important not to be put off if you are older and want to learn.
Several opportunities to learn Maltese, such as online courses, already exist; however other tools and initiatives could facilitate learning the language. An updated online dictionary, TV programmes with Maltese subtitles, Maltese news with dual language posts, and an approved recommended list of Maltese language online tutors, would all be beneficial. It would also be appreciated if Maltese native speakers are patient and reply to us in Maltese whenever we make an effort and speak it ourselves. This helps encourage people to be more confident when speaking the language in public.
While learning Maltese, I became aware of its linguistic richness and its intriguing evolution throughout history. Our language tells a story of strength and of how we prevailed while maintaining our own identity. When I hear nanna’s sayings I remember wonderful times and this encourages me to master my families’ language. To me, our Maltese language is like peering into the soul of our culture. It unites us across generations, distances and nationalities. It is one of the few things that expats cling to while living abroad. I am only at the beginning of my journey in learning Maltese, but I hope to make my ancestors proud someday.
Sharon Heiser (née Buttigieg) lives in the UK and is of Maltese descent. She is a member of the Maltese Culture Movement (UK). This article forms part of the campaign ‘l-ilsien Malti għal qalbi’, organised by the Office of the President of Malta and the Maltese language organisations.