Holidaying somewhere new is exciting, especially if we can communicate in the local language. If you’re thinking of visiting Malta, the good news is that almost all the locals speak English, an official language of the Maltese Islands.

Outside of the business world, however, the other official language spoken by natives of this Mediterranean island archipelago, Malti, is proudly (and loudly!) Maltese. Being a very expressive language, a Maltese person will almost always articulate themselves at a high volume, usually accompanied by animated hand gestures.

Sole survivor of medieval Arabic dialects

Ultimately, the Maltese language is unique, being the only Semitic language written in Latin script and the only official Semitic language of the European Union. According to the Economist, the Maltese language is the sole survivor of the Arabic dialects spoken in Sicily and Spain in medieval times. The Maltese tongue has evolved over centuries, picking up words from its former rulers, which included Romans, Moors, Normans, the Knights of Saint John, French and British. Arabic, however, forms the core of the Maltese tongue.

Many people from Arabic-speaking countries, such as Morocco, therefore find spoken Maltese easy to communicate in. For example, apart from saying zero instead of sifr, counting out loud in Maltese is virtually indistinguishable from Arabic.

Malta is also a very Catholic country. So if you’re the churchgoing type, you’ll hear typically European hymns sung in a hauntingly Arabic-sounding fashion. To hear it for yourself, consider attending a mass at the Rotunda of St John the Baptist in Xewkija, Gozo, a truly spectacular setting.

Greetings from Malta

Foreign language greetings like bonġu and bonswa (bonjour and bonsoir respectively in French) and English and Italian expressions such as ‘thank you’ or grazzi (grazie in Italian), have practically replaced their original Maltese equivalents.

The reason for Malta‘s colourful national language is mostly down to its strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. This has placed the Maltese Archipelago at heart of some of world’s most pivotal historical events, including the wars between Greece and Troy, Rome, Phoenicia and Carthage, and Christians and Moslems. The islands also experienced first-hand the rise and fall of Napoleon and of the British Empire, with both colonial powers ruling Malta in the past.

As such, 95% of Malta‘s population of approximately 493,000 are Maltese and descend from ancient Phoenicians, with a lot of Sicilian and Greek influences. After the British arrived to rule Malta in 1800, the Maltese quickly absorbed the English language. Today, some 88% of the Maltese population speak English fluently. In Malta, English is the written form of legal documents. Both English and Maltese are mandatory academic subjects in schools and there is a large community (1.6%) of British expats in Malta.

The government of Malta and the country’s chamber of commerce took to Twitter via to share the islands’ bilingual attractiveness, especially for digital nomads wishing to settle in Malta:

English In Malta

The Italian language is also popular in Malta, with 66% of islanders conversant. Seventeen percent of the population speak French.

Strange-looking characters

Many visitors reading street signs and advertising billboards in standard Maltese get struck by some of the strange-looking characters of the Maltese alphabet, such as Ċ, Ġ, GĦ, Ħ, IE and Ż. Taking the third character of the alphabet as an example, the c with a little dot on it, the correct pronunciation is “ch”, as in the English word church” or “cherries”. Examples of these in Maltese are ċirasa [cherry], kaċċa [hunt], and ċatt [flat].

Maltese is considered one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. This however doesn’t mean its impossible. There are many free Maltese language courses for those who want to learn, which is why you’ll find the odd Chinese takeaway owner bantering happily with locals, or Italian TV chefs explaining their recipes in fluent Maltese.

Rest assured, however, if you can speak English passably well, you’ll still get on famously with people in Malta. To whet your appetite, why not discover more about Malta’s culture and its heritage?