Maltese migrants in Australia losing mother tongue

Study finds that second-generation Maltese migrants are losing their familiarity with the Maltese language, while still viewing Malta as a desirable holiday destination.

Australian comedian Shaun Micallef has Maltese roots.
Australian comedian Shaun Micallef has Maltese roots.
Australian comedian Adam Hills can trace his maltese ancestry to the 1400s.
Australian comedian Adam Hills can trace his maltese ancestry to the 1400s.

Second-generation Maltese migrants in Australia are rapidly losing the Maltese language, are viewed favourably by the Australian population in comparison to other ethnic groups, and remain fond of Malta as a holiday destination.

This emerges from a survey conducted by Maurice N. Cauchi for the Maltese Community Council in Victoria.

Entitled ‘The Second Generation in Australia – A survey of Maltese-background persons’ and published in April, the study sought to identify key differences between the first generation of Maltese migrants who moved to Australia, and the generation that followed them.

Identifying that 65% of the second generation were aged below 50, the study found that the majority of these residents were born to parents from mixed backgrounds.

Unlike the first generation, the vast majority of whom would be made up of “a couple, both of whom were Maltese”, 60.4% of the second generation were born to families in which one parent was Maltese, while the other was Australian. The survey also noted that 13.4% had a partner of a non-Maltese background, while instances where both parents were Maltese amounted to just 26.2%.

Posing the question of whether the second generation consider themselves ethnically Maltese, the survey found that very few of the respondents described themselves as exclusively ‘Maltese’, with 66% opting to refer to themselves as ‘Maltese-Australian’ while 22.6% considered themselves to simply be ‘Australian’. Perhaps significantly, only 11.3% referred to themselves as ‘Maltese’ – “and these are largely the older members of the community”.

“On the one hand, this would indicate that they have integrated completely within society, but on the other, it might imply that they have lost completely their interest in their culture and may or may not be interested in any contact with the mother country,” the survey observed.

Interestingly, according to one respondent who was asked to comment about the ethnicity issue, these residents would do well to describe themselves as exclusively ‘Australian’, in the interests of facilitating their integration into Australian society – particularly given how the term ‘Australian’ is often used to describe exclusively those with an Anglo or Irish background.

“As such, it is important that Maltese Australians claim Australia as being as much theirs as Australians from other ethnic groups. The game and psyche of identity politics in Australia is very important and Maltese Australians should claim what is theirs and what they have earned and forged through toil in Australia, and not think of themselves (or allow others to define them) as outsiders while defining notions of who or what is Australian.”

Describing this comment as a “contrarian” view which runs counter to the opinion of the majority – who still describe themselves as ‘Maltese’ to some degree – the survey observes that “it is arguable that describing oneself as ‘Maltese-Australian’ somehow reduces one’s claim to being a fully integrated Australian”, while adding that what is in fact certain is that those who describe themselves as fully ‘Australian’ are more likely than others to have “forgotten all about their Maltese background and culture”.

One of the more significant ways in which the second generation is distancing itself from its Maltese heritage is through its progressively weaker grasp on the Maltese language, the survey found.

While 57% of respondents claimed to be able to understand Maltese well or moderately well, only 21% said they speak Maltese to parents and friends.

“These individuals have gone through schooling and have interacted with others of the same age, and have acquired a persona which is almost identical with that of the average native born person in Australia,” the survey observes, also noting that Maltese would be useful to these respondents “only to communicate with ageing grandparents who have now practically lost any command of the English language which they once had”.

Intermarriage between those of Maltese and Australian origin was found to be a “determining” factor in Maltese language maintenance. “It is very difficult to maintain the Maltese language when one’s spouse has a different language,” the survey argues, adding that the result of this miscegenation (the mixing of different racial groups through marriage) on top of a “rather small base of Maltese second generation speakers” could prove disastrous for the third generation.

In fact, 69.1% of respondents admitted that they never speak to their children in Maltese, with only 2.3% claiming that they speak in Maltese to their children “frequently”.

The survey also found that persons of Maltese origin dodged the bullet of racism among the general Australian populace, who found people of Maltese origin, as well as those coming from other countries within the Mediterranean region, as being among the least socially problematic ethnic group to interact with.

Respondents were asked to classify their relationship with a number of ethnic groups, answering the question “How close are you prepared to be with any of the following persons?” by ticking a box labelled ‘1’ (most close) to ‘5’ (least close). Respondents gave a score varying from 2.3 to 2.5 to when pertaining to those of Maltese, Australian or Mediterranean nationality.

Despite the survey suggesting that links to Malta may be weakening for the second generation, it emerged that only 10% of respondents never visited Malta, suggesting that at the very least, their mother country remains a popular holiday destination, bolstered further for many by pleasant childhood memories.

Using the ‘1 to 5’ scale again, Malta was given an average of 1.7 by participants, with ‘1’ indicating “complete satisfaction”.

The full study can be downloaded from http://goo.gl/mqMu1d

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