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The Gift of Language

Malta is a bilingual country. The national languages are both Maltese and English. And despite it being a very small country, there is somewhat of a divide - the people who primarily speak Maltese and the people who primarily speak English. This is often down to schools attended. Some teach in English, others in Maltese. If I'm honest, it is slightly confusing and messy, but that's the way it is. Most people are perfectly fluent in both. Personally, while I adore languages, I'm not very good at them and having been brought up speaking English, my Maltese has suffered slightly along the way (though ironically it seems to have improved since I left Malta).

David on the other hand is perfectly fluent in both, as well as in Italian. He can also communicate well in French and Spanish to an extent. He is one of those lucky people who is amazing at languages. My mother is similar (imagine her disdain when I turned up!!).

Enter Emily, who was born in the UK. She is still Maltese (although we intend to get her to dual-citizenship status at some point) but has very limited exposure to the language. We know that the best way to raise a child to be bilingual is for each parent to speak a different language to the child. However this works easiest when the parents are actually from different countries. With David and myself it feels unnatural as we speak to each other in English (with the odd Maltese word thrown in... it's a Maltese thing!). So what to do?


I could be wrong, but I have a funny feeling Emily takes after David in this respect rather than me. Her understanding of most of what I tell her is already very clear. She has known what "milk" means since she was about 5 months old. She also knows what "sleep", "nappy" and "bath" mean. We communicate well: I say the word (within a sentence) when I think it's time for whichever and she will smile or snuggle if she wants to sleep, for example. If she is not interested, then there is no reaction. It's a system that works well.

Seeing as how David was raised in Italy and England as well as in Malta, his parents spoke to him in Maltese to ensure that he never loses his Maltese. We thought it would be fitting for them to continue this with Emily. It's not the same of course but there'd be visits and Skype, and later on, phone calls and overall we thought it might give her more of a reason to want to learn the language. Sadly, it would appear that they'd prefer not to. It seems a pity, but it is ultimately their choice. We will teach her some basic vocabulary and she will have special story books in Maltese, and perhaps when she's older she'll make the choice to pursue it further.

Ultimately I feel it is important to give her at least a basic understanding of part of her heritage. And that much, I will strive to do.



  1. I was raised by two Maltese-speaking parents in Canada till I was seven. I could understand Maltese and even managed the odd sentence here and there, but English remained my main language. When we moved to Malta and I started Year 3, it took me some time to learn how to talk and write the language, but I did catch up really quick. With Cesca, we both talk to her in Maltese and English and our friends speak to her in their native tongues (Greek and Slovak!!) It'll be interesting seeing how she turns out :)

    Nowadays, you find Maltese books for children and even TV programmes on the internet. A child's brain absorbs information at an alarming rate, so even though you may think she is not getting enough of the language, every little bit she's getting, she's learning.

  2. How about having a weekly "Maltese day", in which you and David speak to each other and Emily, entirely in Maltese?

  3. Josepha, I had no idea you were raised in Canada! I know children absorb every bit of language you throw at them (that's a great idea re Greek & Slovak haha) so I just want to make sure she's getting enough of both I guess.

    Pa, that's actually a really good idea. Not sure it'll last but it will make for a few good laughs I suspect lol x

  4. So now I'm sat here wondering, what on earth is a nappy in Maltese?! I'll need to fish out that dictionary sooner than I thought!

  5. THANK YOU! It was one of those frustrating "tip of my tongue" moments and the dictionary is in E's room where she is asleep lol.

  6. It's harqa (il-h maqtuha)! I can tell you from experience (i.e. Maia) that in order for her to be able to speak Maltese fluently she has to hear it on a regular basis, or daily preferably. And she must also use it she'd have to communicate in Maltese with whoever speaks to her in that language. G and I communicate in English and Italian (our secret language) and speak to Maia in English. My parents are the ones to speak to her in Maltese and at school they speak Maltese too. She's still struggling with Maltese but we're getting there very slowly. We can call her on Skype and speak to her in Gozitan if you want! :-D

  7. one of those very inteligent conversations!! Wow! Well here is me native Hungarian however raised in Romania (so fluent native in both) then married to my English husband who does only see kids early mornings most often as he works late....! I have a four years old that has my language learning abilities and although I had never conciously thought him any but English he does know loads of words in Hungarian and has recently picked up more French then Hungarian!....I made a concious effort to not run myslef crazy with guilt and super intelectual craze.....I do however regret not making more of an effort as Reuben as you know loves loves languages. (4yrs old) its very hard I have every admiration for anyone who can and will teach effectivley kids another long as its what they want and don;t feel its what they have to do. I believe that comes an age everyone will be very interested in their own origins.....they would have regrets no matter what.. I hope and pray that my kids will understand how tireing and consuming it was to raise them a foreign country and give them a good start and good vocabulary in English....while trying to make sure they have much fun and food and all.....and encourage them to outdo me when their turn comes. I don;t mind not being such a super mum! I can only be as good as I can be. I will never not speak in front of my kids in my own languages...but I will not force these onto them I know they will naturally be able to pick it up any any stage....phew it is a difficult one.

  8. For what it's worth, I found it hard to speak English to Amy at first and it felt unnatural to me - I think mostly because I thought she wouldn't understand anything anyway (in any language).

    But I kept it up and after a few months or so, I got used to it. And now I'm really glad I kept it up!

    So I think that if one or both of you chose to start speaking Maltese to her, you could also get used to that arrangement after a while.

    And for what it's worth, Stella and I are from the same country, too :) And I speak the majority language to Stella.

    Not to say it always works to produce an actively bilingual child - for example, my middle sister's elder boy speaks German back to her even though she speaks only English to him - but they'll still understand a whole lot more than if you didn't expose them regularly to the language at all. Plus they often have latent knowledge which can become active fairly quickly in the right situation.

    So do consider it :)

    Oh, and also - don't be scared of not having the vocabulary; there's no shame in consulting a dictionary and children will learn that adults don't know everything but that there are ways to learn new things (i.e. by looking them up).

  9. Wow I am totally thrilled at all the advice and suggestions that have come flooding in today!

    Mau, I completely agree that a language needs to be used on a regular basis to be maintained. It was the reason my Maltese struggled so much. We spoke English at home as well as at school (hell, even Maltese lessons were often taught in English!), so I am aware that it needs to be consistent. But at the same time I am not aiming at her being fluent, I think that may be asking too much. If she has a basic understanding, that she can go to Malta and understand what is being said around her, I'll be happy.

    Also, perhaps not in Gozitan, but we really should Skype sometime!!! x

  10. Maria, knowing you all personally, I know what you mean. I do know however, from people in similar situations, that as you said there comes a time when the children are either interested in their heritage or they realise that an additional language would come in handy and they ask their parents why they did not teach them their second language. It IS difficult, there's no question about that. We want them to "fit in" as much as possible in another country, and perhaps doing that means speaking primarily English.

    I suppose the fact that Maltese is, as horrible as it sounds, a rather useless language doesn't help the situation. It's not like she can go anywhere in the world and be able to use it :-/

  11. Thank you Philip, I guess your situation is as close to ours as it's going to get! And yes, I know what you mean about it not always working - my mum did after all try to speak to me in Maltese when I was young, but I just responded in English (often amidst laughter and telling her to stop being silly!) But yes, it still instils some "background" knowledge which is far better than nothing at all.

  12. And you have an A level in maltese! You can't be too bad Tsk xxx

  13. I think this is fantastic, I naturally was very good in languages at school but have not used them since, I come from many different cultures, mainly english speaking, I was very sad when my great gran passed as she was the only member of the family that would teach us to speak Syrian, I remember a few words but very little x

  14. Hey, the SLP in me emerging. Language development is indeed fascinating. There are a lot of different bilinguals (multilinguals). These include sequential bilingualism, simultaneous bilingualism, co-ordinate etc. In our case it is different as English and Maltese are used simultaneously so it's not the same when one parent is German and the other is English.

    We also distinguish between code switching and Maltese or English as L1 (first language) or L2 (second language). When we were young, especially those who attended a church schools, our L1 and language of instruction was in English, however we would code switch to Maltese which was considered as our L2. In other cases it is the opposite where Maltese was L1. Interestingly we had to carry out a study about this and found that those whose L1 is Maltese preferred to read literature in English (our age group). There's a whole other study about Gozitans switching between standard Maltese and their dialects/accents.

    Today the local curriculum suggests that all numbers, colours and shapes are taught in English irrespective of language of instruction. The reason for this is because Maths books are in English.

    We suggest that the parents speak to the child in the language they are most proficient in to reduce the possibility of grammatical errors. We also recommend 'one moment, one language'. For instance speaking Maltese during a particular activity such as bath time, meal times etc.

    The issue in Malta is that Kids tend to use English when they use nouns or some verbs (qed jiekol apple etc). So that's why we recommend one-moment, one language.