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Maltese language in Australia

The Catholic primary school at Luddenham in Sydney opened up six Maltese classes at different levels. Photo: parra.catholic.edu.au

The Catholic primary school at Luddenham in Sydney opened up six Maltese classes at different levels. Photo: parra.catholic.edu.au

When the late Prof. Joseph (Ġużè) Aquilina visited Sydney, Australia, in July-August 1968 for the 10th Commonwealth Universities Congress, local interest and beliefin the formal study of theMaltese language was practically non-existent.

When Aquilina landed at Kingsford Smith International Airport, the renowned scholar was greeted by just two people: the Maltese consul, Eucharist Barbara, and myself, the only member of the Maltese community who turned up.

The respected don and I spent a most memorable time during his free sessions as I showed him around Sydney, including places of cultural interest.

Before our first face-to-face meeting, Aquilina and I had corresponded with each other, on my initiative, for some three years, a result of my early but ever-growing interest in Maltese.

I had introduced Aquilina to some of my pioneering work in Maltese studies (including the first ever school of Maltese which I founded in May 1968 at St Gertrude’s Catholic School, Smithfield, New South Wales, and the spadework I had begun in the compilation and formal analysis of Maltraljan (the Maltese spoken in Australia).

Following this memorable encounter, Aquilina, together with fellow professor and author Ġużè Galea, to whom I was also known at the time through correspondence, facilitated my affiliation to the Akkademja tal-Malti in recognition of my efforts to promote and cultivate Maltese in Australia.

Prior to these formal classes in Maltese, I had given private lessons to a Benedictine monk, Dom Alberic Jacovone, who ministered to a large Maltese component within his parish.

My other commitments to cultivate and teach Maltese in Australia, before Aquilina’s visit in 1968, included a series of Maltese language sessions I recorded for the language laboratories of Sydney University; the founding of a Maltese literary society (Għaqda Kittieba Maltija) as an auxiliary to the Fairfield Melita Drama Company (now defunct); giving talks on Maltese language and culture to various schools and academic gatherings such as the Arabic Society and the Dante Alighieri Society, both of Sydney University; introducing Maltese authors to Australia at public exhibitions of Maltese books, and the publication of the Maltese literary journal Ix-Xefaq (The Horizon).

I even managed to bring to Australia a documentary colour film (35 mm) on the classic work by Ninu Cremona Il-Fidwa tal-Bdiewa. This was screened at the Sydney University cinema.

This is how the interest in the formal study and promotion of Maltese in Australia began – out of my pioneering efforts from 1968 onwards.

So this significant date must be included in the Għaqda tal-Malti (Università)’s list as defectively published, if this document is to be treated with the respect and credibility it deserves. The much publicised grand and noble notion of Greater Malta must extend to all these aspects of Maltese endeavour internationally. It must not be restricted merely to that which is “politically” expedient to Malta and merely what happens in Malta.

It needs to be officially noted that this teaching of Maltese in Australia was the first time ever that the language had been formally taught (and by implication, recognised) outside the Maltese archipelago.

Furthermore, this historical event in the annals of Maltese was initiated within a culturally alien environment at the time; a most significant factor which adds to its uniqueness.

Before 1968, I had written extensively in the local Maltese and Australian press arguing the case for Maltese. I had been agitating for positive action for several years.

Eventually, the significance of my call very slowly began to sink into the local community’s psyche. At first it was solely the late Prof. Colin MacLaurin, former head of the Department of Semitic Studies at Sydney University, who publicly backed up my call .

This background information clearly establishes that the first formal school for the teaching of Maltese in Australia was the result of my pioneering efforts from 1968 onwards.

Present and future writers of and commentators on the history of Maltese matters in Australia, when referring to our language question, need to accord thisits due prominence and significance if their labours are to be taken seriously.

Having listed these historical facts, it makes one wonder what the motivation of some public figures might be in consistently projecting the late Joseph Abela as the originator of this uniquely Maltese cause while continuing to negate my sole pioneering efforts. Distorting history in the face of documented proof undermines their credibility.

Of course, Abela’s achievement of 1981 deserves suitable mention in the Għaqda’s list of achievements in Maltese language matters. But it was a whole 13 years after my initial founding that he began lecturing in Maltese at the Phillip Institute of Technology, Melbourne. He and I had been in correspondence with each other for a number of years.

In 1981, when I was in Malta reading for a B.Educ. (Hons) in Maltese, Abela wrote to MacLaurin seeking a lectureship in Maltese within his department. MacLaurin, who wanted me to fill this post after I had obtained my degree in Maltese. He had formally asked then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff to provide a scholarship enabling me to read for a degree in Maltese at the University of Malta, MacLaurin alerted me to Abela’s interest and suggested to him that before he could even be considered for the post, he must undergo a thorough course in Arabic. Abela did not want to study Arabic and that put an end to his Sydney ambition.

But Maltese, as a language of one of the numerically larger ethnic groups in Australia, has a much longer history than this.

From a journalistic perspective it knows its origins to 1929, when the first Maltese journalist in Australia, Charles George Parnis, initiated the publication of a series of magazine-like journals entitled Publicazioni Educativa Bil Malti u Bl’Inglis u Bil Malti. This effort was later followed up with the first ever Maltese language newspaper in Australia, entitled Il Vuċi Tal Malti fl’Australia – Avvocat tal Bidwi Cul Gimgħa in 1931.

What is particularly noteworthy but perhaps not so obvious to the casual reader in Parnis’s 1929 contribution is his foresight in formally recording the first instances of Maltraljan. In a series of word lists, Parnis recorded the first ever occurrences of this peculiar language development in spoken Maltese in Australia.

During my encounter with Aquilina in 1968, when I first pointed out this language phenomenon, he instantly encouraged me to continue with my work by formalising my studies with a tertiary qualification in Maltese Linguistics.

In February 1999, immediately following my graduation in Maltese, with the full backing of the then Education Minister of New South Wales, John Aquilina, and the solid support of the Maltese Community Council of NSW, the Maltese Cultural Association of NSW and a select number of resourceful individuals from the local Maltese community, the Maltese Language School of NSW was born.

This effort was such an instant success that from one campus we expanded to four to cater for the overwhelming response. As a direct result of the fervour this historic event had generated within the local Maltese community of Sydney, the Catholic primary school at Luddenham, in the southwestern regions of Sydney, opened up six Maltese classes (at different levels) which I taught every Wednesday.

When this exercise became too much for me to handle on my own, no one from our community came forward to help out. The task was too onerous, not least considering the long distances one had to travel from home to the school.

This 1999 date too ought to be added to the Għaqda’s list.

This is essentially the basic history of the teaching and cultivation of Maltese in Australia. Much more can be added but all else is mere detail; a run-off result from these early efforts, achievements, and also sadly too, some failures, owing to lack of support from various quarters.

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