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Many visitors to Malta experience a sense of confusion when they land in Malta. Unlike most Mediterranean destinations, all the airport signs and directions are in English, the airport staff will answer any enquiries you have in English, while the officers on Passport Control will talk to you … in English.
Pick up your bags and walk a few steps from the ‘Nothing to declare’ sign though and you’ll encounter locals waiting for relatives and friends to arrive in the terminal and they’ll be chatting away – in foreign! What’s going on there then? What happened to that nice English stuff that we could all understand? And what on earth is that weird dialect they’re conversing in?
That, my friends, is Maltese, the national language of Malta. Actually, it’s one of two national languages of Malta. The other one is English, which explains why everyone can understand you perfectly well and answer any questions you might ask them. The vast majority of Maltese people speak English as well as you do – they just speak it with a Maltese accent.
You see these are clever folk because they are virtually all bi-lingual. Most are actually tri-lingual because they also speak Italian too! Moreover, a decent percentage can probably get by in at least a couple more languages as well. That’s what comes from being repeatedly invaded over the years and being massively reliant on tourism from various European destinations. It helps if you can speak to the French, German, Spanish etc people who turn up.
If when you’re listening to Maltese you think it sounds difficult to comprehend then that’s because it is – sometimes even for other Maltese people. You see, even though you can drive across the entire country in about half an hour, the Maltese have distinctly different regional dialects.
Those who live in the south sound very different to those from central and northern parts of the island. As for those who hail from the sister island of Gozo, well, they speak another different dialect entirely.
In spite of all this, many foreigners who decide to settle in Malta soon manage to get a grasp of the language. It’s an odd mix with many Arabic leanings but thanks to Malta’s colonial links it also borrows heavily from English and has the odd inclusion from Italian too.
For those who want to fully embrace the local culture, it is possible to attend Maltese Language classes for foreigners. Given its Arabic influences, it’s hard for westerners to get their head around but it’s not impossible. And some people just love the challenge and experience of trying to pick up a new language and being able to ask for things and say thank you like the locals do.
If you’re around for a while then the best way is to get yourself a language coach, someone who is willing to sit down and converse with you in Maltese for an hour or so a week.
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