My grandparents arrived in Canada as young teenage immigrants in the 1950’s. They emigrated from Malta, a tiny island south of Sicily and northeast of Tunisia - barely visible on a map.
Malta has a rich history that spans thousands of years, but to many Canadians the tiny speck in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea is fairly unknown.
I grew up as a second-generation Maltese Canadian, but my family was always very connected to our culture. On weekends I visited the Maltese Club, where I’d play bingo with my Nanna, a cloud of cigarette smoke like a halo around my head. When I grew bored of bingo, I visited the dining area, where my Nannu would be watching European Football at a table with his friends. He always passed me a two dollar bill, so that I could buy some pastizzi and drink a glass bottle of Malta’s soft drink, Kinnie.
When I first met my husband, I remember being shocked by how little culture he had. When we filled out our wedding registry, he shook his head while I declared that a garlic press was a staple for my style of cooking.
After having children, I started to feel like I was losing my history and a piece of my identity. I didn’t want my children to grow up not knowing where they came from, or what it’s like to live in a home that celebrates unique traditions that are culturally significant.
One of the ways that I committed to bringing Maltese culture into our home was by teaching my three daughters the Maltese language. I was never taught Maltese as a child, but as I grew older, I committed to learning conversational Maltese. It turned out to be relatively easy for me, and speaking Maltese felt like finding a missing piece of myself.
I started teaching my daughters Maltese as a surprise for my grandparents. I wanted them to enjoy hearing their great-granddaughters speak the language of their ancestors, and I thought it would be a special and unique gift for them.
On a recent visit I asked my oldest daughter how old she was, “Kemm ghandek zmien?”
“Ħamsa,” my five-year-old replied, a proud smile spread across her face.
My grandparents clapped their hands in pleasure, and my grandfather made a joke about Maltese being a useless language.
His comment was expected, because my Maltese grandparents are practical people and proudly assimilated Canadians. They speak Maltese, but never felt it was important to teach their kids.
I know many others will feel the same. Maltese is a language that no one really understands. Learning Maltese has little value to my children, beyond the pride of knowing another language. Their time may be more wisely spent learning Canada’s second language, French.
I will encourage my children to pursue language learning, and anything else that excites and inspires them. But I am committed to teaching my children Maltese so that a piece of their ancestors remains alive inside of them.
Canada is a richly woven tapestry of many different cultures, religions, and languages. I don’t agree that Canadians must leave their country behind and forget everything they came from. I hope that each Canadian can continue to carry the story, and the history of their origins with them.
For us, it’s through cooking rich Maltese food, full of pungent garlic and aromatic spices. It’s by celebrating feasts and holidays the way that Maltese people do, with joy, and merriment, and extravagance. And through speaking the Maltese with my children, a language that brings me back to my childhood and the ones I love; a language that feels like coming home.