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Why It’s time to bury the Maltese language in Australia

Malta Independent Tuesday, 2 March 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

Joseph Carmel Chetcuti

BA Hons, MA Hons, LLB Hons, LTH

Much of what is said and written about the future of the Maltese language in Australia finds it source in raw emotions. More often than not, those barracking for the language have little, if any, experience and qualifications of relevance. What rankles me is to see some of our self-appointed community leaders talking up the Maltese language when in reality they never gave a hoot about it.

Attempts to revive and promote the language in Australia area misguided. Let’s start off with some very basic statistics. As at the 2006 Australian Census, the number of Australians speaking Maltese at home was 36,514, compared to 41,250 in 2001 and 45,243 in 1996. The 2006 figures represent a drop of 19.29% when compared with the 1996 figures. Given that many of those who speak Maltese at home are over the age of 60, the number of Maltese speakers will invariably go for a nosedive by 2016. There are also reports of dwindling numbers of students studying Maltese at Year 12. And they have been dwindling from what were already unhealthy numbers of students!

We can analyse and account for these statistics until the cows come home. Maltese began to migrate to Australia in large numbers during the 1950s and 1950s. Both the Maltese and the Australian governments pushed us hard to assimilate within mainstream Australia. The Maltese are very good at assimilation; after all, we even manage to ‘assimilate’ in our own countries. To put it bluntly, few Maltese who migrated to Australia had any grounding in the Maltese language; their lack of knowledge of the language was passed on to their children. If the parents thought the Maltese language was “the language of their kitchen”, their children assigned to the chamber pot. Generation gaps between those who were born in Malta and those who were born in Australia were all too obvious, and the Maltese language increasingly became the identifying feature of those who had left Malta as adults. First-generation migrants retreated into their shells. Those left outside the shell found neither the shell nor its occupants all that remarkable. Like other migrant children, the children of Maltese migrants wanted desperately to fit in. A paramount way of fitting in was to take on the language of your adopted country and to discard the language of your parents. Those born in Australia considered themselves Australians, not Maltese.

There are other factors working against the Maltese language. To state the obvious, Australia is nowhere near Europe. Australia’s neighbouring countries include, to the north, Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea, to the north east, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the French dependency of New Caledonia, and, to the south east, New Zealand. The languages that are relevant to Australia’s emerging identity are those of neighbouring countries and those with whom Australia has strong economic ties such as Japan and China. There is also the all-too-obvious fact that Australian universities have witnessed a steep decline in the study of languages in favour of professional and trade courses. To expect Maltese-Australians to devote time to the study of the Maltese language is no longer reasonable. The study of the language is a luxury few can afford, given the current economic crisis and the fact that knowledge of the Maltese language brings with it no economic benefits. In any event, our Australian local and worldview passes on to us through the medium of the English language. The Maltese language does not reflect Australian reality, and it cannot reflect Australian reality because it is not the language that is systematically used between Australians. I mean we watch TV in English, we listen to the radio in English, even if we buy groceries and clothing that are made in China.

Of late, several ideas have been thrown around. On an SBS radio programme, I heard someone say that the Maltese government should send a couple of Maltese teachers to Australia. I ask: What on earth can anyone do with two teachers of the Maltese language in a continent as vast as Australia? Others have suggested that the University of Malta should develop a curriculum to suit Australian conditions. Why should the University of Malta be invited to develop a curriculum to suit Australian conditions? Why not have Maltese-Australians develop such a curriculum? There have also been calls for the University of Malta to accredit programmes in the Maltese language. Why should a university be drawn into study programmes that are not of a tertiary level? And what is the point of having an overseas university accredit programmes if they are not recognised by Australian educational authorities?

The Maltese language is not yet dead in Australia but you do not have to be a prophet to predict its passing away. The challenge for the Maltese community in Australia is not to seek to reverse the trend but to mould a ‘Maltese reality’, if that is what Australians of Maltese descent want, that is not under the influence of language and religion. In this regard, the community councils that are scattered across Australia have failed miserably to face up to this challenge. As to my reaction to the other most idiotic suggestion that more Maltese priests and doctors be sent to Australia, I leave that to another day.

Chetcuti is a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria. He is a gay activist, and the author of Il-Ktieb Roza: Dnub, Dizordni u Delitt? (1997) and Queer Mediterranean Memories: Penetrating the Secret History and Silence of Gay and Lesbian Disguise in the Maltese Archipelago (2009). He is expected to be in Malta between March and April this year to launch his last book and to attend the Convention of Maltese Living Overseas.

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