The phrase ‘tkellem bil-Malti’ (speak in Maltese) can often be divisive and provocative but this is astutely not so for the Maltese Language School of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia.

Founded in January 1999, the school has been operational for the majority of the last two decades and is currently educating about 60 students of a variety of ages.

Since restructuring in 2007, it has flourished to include three locations in New South Wales and is working on opening other campuses, school principle Mary Pace Feroud told Times of Malta.

“Our aim is to offer tuition based on modern methods, leading to the learning and practice of speaking, reading, writing and an in-depth knowledge of the language, history, culture and customs of the island of Malta,” Ms Pace Feroud says.

New South Wales is home to around eight million people where just over 7,000 listed themselves as Maltese or having Maltese ancestry in the last census, the majority of whom reside in the Greater Sydney area.

The school welcomes students of all ages, from age six to adults, which Ms Pace Feroud says show a lot of interest in staying connected to Malta.

“I’m happy to say that we have even welcomed students totally unconnected to Malta and who are interested in learning the language, sometimes even after visiting the island on holiday,” she says.

The school is staffed entirely by native Maltese speakers and teachers have access to ongoing development courses through the NSW Federation of Community Languages as well as ongoing support from the NSW Education Department and the Maltese government.

“We want to encourage communication in Maltese within family members and between friends whether they live in Australia or in Malta,” Ms Pace Feroud says.

Proficient students who would want to further their studies even have the opportunity to sit for a Higher School Certificate in Maltese language.

Natalie-Lisa Agius, 25, whose grandparents were born in Gozo, has been attending classes at the school for the past two years.

“My nannu is from Xewkija and my nanna from Xagħra,” Ms Agius says. “I’ve never been to Malta but it’s absolutely my dream to go there and feel more connected to my heritage and get the chance to meet my other family members.”

Ms Agius adds that learning Maltese was rewarding but came with its own challenges, particularly having grown up speaking only English and having no one to practise conversations with at home.

“I think not being around those who speak Maltese often makes it hard for me to pick up but I am slowly getting the hang of it,” Ms Agius remarks.

“I study as much as I can between my jobs and I have little notes in my phone when I have the spare time. I think if you put in the time and effort, it isn’t any harder than learning another language.”

The Maltese community in Australia is still very strong, Ms Agius notes, and there are still pockets of the community who speak primarily in Maltese. She hopes she will be proficient enough to join them soon.

“Learning the language makes me feel I have a much stronger connection to Malta,” Ms Agius admits.

“I hope that more Australian-Maltese like myself join in and learn Maltese because the culture, the food and the history behind the language is amazing.”

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