Malta has three official languages: Maltese English. Maltese is the national language. Until 1934, Italian was also an official language in Malta. Having the country been governed by many different countries in the past, the Maltese population is generally able to converse in languages which are not native to the country, namely English and Italian.
According to the Eurobarometer poll conducted in 2012, 98% of Maltese people can speak Maltese, 88% can speak English, 66% can speak Italian, and more than 17% speak French. This shows a recent increase in fluency in languages, since in 1995, only 98% of the population spoke Maltese, 76% English, 36% Italian, and 10% French. Surprisingly, it also shows an increase in Italian fluency compared to when Italian was an official language of Malta.
According to the 2011 census, there were 377,952 people aged 10 and over, of whom 357,692 people (94.7%) declared to speak Maltese at least at an average level, 248,570 (82.1%) declared to speak English at least at an average level and 93,401 (43.7%) declared to speak Italian at least at an average level, out of a scale made of "Well", "Average", "A little" and "Not at all". French, German and Spanish are the other main languages studied in secondary and tertiary education.
Maltese is the national language of the Maltese people, and one of the official languages of Malta and the European Union. It is a Semitic language derived from Siculo-Arabic; however a majority of vocabulary comes from Sicilian and Italian, as described by Maltese linguist May Butcher. 52% of Maltese words are of Romance origin, a result of significant influence from Italy (in particular Sicily) and, to a lesser extent, France. Malta holds the distinction of being the only country in Europe with a historically Semitic language. The Maltese language is written with a modified Latin Alphabet which includes the letters ż, ċ, ġ, ħ, and għ.
Various localities have accents and dialects divergent from standard Maltese. There has been a decline in the number of dialectal speakers, mostly because of exposure to standard Maltese in the media and the institutionalisation of education. The standard language also shows a more pronounced Italianization and Anglicization of the language.
Before independence in 1964, Malta was a British possession, and a result of this is that English is still an official language, with government business being carried out in both English and Maltese. Most Maltese learn English in school, this being obligatory in most cases. Secondary and tertiary education is conducted exclusively in English. Today, 88% of Malta's population speak English. Aside from Maltese, English is the only other official language of the country. Although standard English is official, the variety of English commonly spoken in Malta is heavily influenced by Italian, not only in vocabulary (most commonly by pronouncing Franco-Latin loan words in English in an Italian style) but extending to phonology, with the English being heavily accented; however, Received Pronunciation remains standard amongst Maltese individuals of a high socioeconomic bracket. Malta also shares with the Republic of Ireland the distinction of being both officially Anglophone, both members of the Eurozone, and a Catholic dominance.
During the rule of the Order of St. John the majority of knights were French and thus the French language was used by the community in every day life. However, the Italian language remained dominant for official purposes. Despite this, it was often used for documentation and maps, because prominent military engineers of the order were French.
For many centuries and until 1934, Italian was the official language of Malta. Indeed, it was considered the language of culture in Malta since the Italian Renaissance. In the 19th century Italian irredentists and Italian Maltese wanted to promote its use throughout Malta for plans to re-unify it to Italy (Malta was part of the Kingdom of Sicily up to 13th century). In the first decades of the 20th century there was even a struggle (within Maltese society and politics) over the "language problem", which came to a head by World War II: in 1933 the Constitution was withdrawn over the Government's budgetary vote for the teaching of Italian in elementary schools. Although only the rich could speak Italian, it was however understood by nearly all the population, and with Maltese being generally spoken by those less well-off, Italian was regarded as the official language.
Today, 66% of the Maltese population can speak Italian, and 8% of the population "prefer" to use it in day-to-day conversation, due to the large recent influx of Italian immigrants. Although Italian has since been replaced by English as the official language, it is still used and is spoken commonly in certain professional workplaces by Italian immigrants. The percentage of speakers today, 66%, is in fact much greater than when the language was actually official, in 1931, when only 14% spoke it.
A large number of Maltese learn Italian through Italian television, mainly Mediaset and RAI, as their broadcasts reach the Maltese Islands. In addition to this, many products, services, and businesses that reach Malta are Italian, and many people are exposed to Italian that way.
Recently the Maltese government has mooted the possibility of reinstating Italian as an official language in Malta.
For several centuries, Malta was ruled by the order of the Knights of Malta, with members coming from different parts of Europe, when, beside old Italian, Latin was commonly used for official purposes such as at the Castellania.
In addition to Italian, many Maltese generally have some degree of proficiency in French, and quite a few understand or speak Spanish or German, although several other languages are studied too, of which Arabic and Russian are offered in schools.
The Governmental Circular letter for the school year 2011-2012 shows the following language options should be available in schools:
Form I (around the age of 11)
This language is studied for the five years in Secondary School
Form III (around the age of 13)
This language is studied for the last three years in Secondary School
There are equal numbers of newspapers written in English and Maltese, with none being written in Italian.
The vast majority of people preferred English as their choice of reading, with English being preferred by 61.13% of the population for books and 70.89% for magazines. Only 35.75% of the Maltese population preferred to read books in Maltese, and 22.65% of them preferred it for magazines.
Regarding radio, Italian takes the place of English, with radio stations being predominantly in Maltese and Italian, with a few in English too.
82.41% of the population regularly listens to Maltese radio, 25.41% listens to Italian, and a smaller 14.69% listened to English radio.
The local television channels in Malta are broadcast mainly in Maltese and sometimes English. However, many people have access to foreign television channels from Italy, the UK, or other European countries, or from the United States, either via local cable or digital terrestrial services, or directly via satellite.
Until at least 2005, Maltese was not a commonly used language on the internet, with the majority of "Maltese" websites being written in other languages. Out of a survey conducted on 13 Maltese websites, 12 of them were entirely in English, with one being bilingual, but not Maltese.
Possible scenarios for the future of the Maltese language are a subject of speculation among scholars. Dialectal variation of Maltese is in decline. There is influence from English and Italian. There is a perceived language shift towards English amongst the Maltese, with lexological and grammatical patterns in the Maltese language increasingly anglicized. However this absorption of linguistic influences saturates the history of the Maltese language, which remains spoken by almost 100% of the population.