What is Maltese anyway?

X’jismek? Jisimni Kaylena. ([ʃjɪsmək]? [Jɪsɪmni] Kaylena.) “What do you call yourself? I call myself Kaylena.” As soon as I was accepted into the University of Malta, I decided I’d learn Maltese. I’m Maltese myself, but only visited Malta once when I was 15. Before this exchange, I knew little of my Maltese heritage. Language seemed like a good place to start, since it’s an integral part of culture and heritage. As I want to be a writer, language is also an integral part of who I am.

The day after I arrived, I found an app and began teaching myself Maltese vocabulary. I learned the alphabet and some basic phrases. Once Uni started, I joined a Maltese Survival Level class. All basics and beginnings. Yet I could barely distinguish when one word started and the next began. To fine-tune my hearing, I decided to watch Maltese films and shows. To Netflix I went: the available shows change based on location, so I assumed I’d find some in Maltese. Yet I found nothing. There are no Maltese shows on Netflix.

I was stumped. I didn’t own a TV; how else could I watch Maltese shows? The only channels I’d seen had been in English; did they even have Maltese on TV? Or was it like Swiss German: it exists but it’s rare, because shows are usually in Standard German.

That made me think about how culture impacts language learning. English is accessible to almost everyone. The blockbuster movies are originally in English and have English screenings abroad. The majority of famous musicians sing in English, famous modern novels are written in English… If I want to learn English, resources are readily available.

But what about Maltese? When the language you’re “competing with” is English, is there even a chance of winning?

But what about Maltese? When the language you’re “competing with” is English, is there even a chance of winning? There is little Maltese literature in Maltese, Maltese music in Maltese is rare, and while some Maltese shows in Maltese exist, there are virtually no films. Yet Maltese shows, literature and music in English are easily found. Look at YouTube: I found mention of one popular purely Maltese YouTube channel. Other top channels are in French, English and Arabic.

Language’s role in culture is often taken for granted, yet we define ourselves by the art our culture produces. Take Shakespeare – English has many words purely because Shakespeare invented them. He’s an icon for English literature. Does Malta have that? Not really. Maltese writers exist, of course. But as the world evolves and changes, many words are assimilated from English, lessening the “Maltese” part of the language.

It gets more complex when one considers the linguistic history. With a Semitic background and influence from English and Sicilian, Maltese vocabulary is a mix. Many Maltese speak Italian comfortably and prefer Italian TV to Maltese. Due to this linguistic mix, the argument can be made of, “What is purely Maltese anyway?”

I want to learn it. I want to hear it, write it, speak it; I want to create poetry in it.

These factors already impact language learning but think of diversity. If Malta had a Shakespeare, I wouldn’t read him as a language learner! I’d read children’s books or YA novels. Why? Those typically employ simpler language while elevating interest. Yet when your language is small and English is present, less diversity is inevitable, with correspondingly fewer options to choose from. Although I have found a few Maltese children’s novels in bookstores, I doubt many Maltese YA novels exist.

As a Maltese who hasn’t spent my life on the island, I don’t have much say. As a linguistics student, the situation saddens me. English takes over the world while other languages fade. Maltese is a part of my heritage. I want to learn it. I want to hear it, write it, speak it; I want to create poetry in it. But it’s difficult to learn when the access to it is so limited.

When I told a fellow exchange student that I’m learning Maltese, he asked me this: “Why would you learn a language that’s only spoken by 500’000 people?” To him it’s an obvious waste of time. But I came to Malta to explore my heritage, and Maltese is a part of that. I may never speak or write it fluently, but I can try my best. I would love to write in Maltese one day. I will not be a Shakespeare, yet if I write just a little poetry, then I will have a hand in ensuring that the language of my heritage does not disappear just yet.

Kaylena Steiner

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