SOS: language teaching in schools

We should embrace and implement the proposals of the EU Commission for Language Learning at pre-primary school level.

The EU recommends that we expose children to three languages at kindergarten level.

A paper published by the Commission on 7 July 2011 on language learning states: 'Concern has sometimes been expressed that a child exposed to more than one language may become confused and mixes them up, slowing down language development. Research suggests that education through the medium of a second/foreign language actually enhances communication awareness in the first language/mother tongue. Children who have access to more than one language tend to transfer into the first language/mother tongue the concepts and terms they have learned through the second/foreign language and vice versa. Hence, language processing in a multilingual mind helps stimulate cognitive development.'

For a country where the livelihood of so many families depends on tourism, financial and business services and trade with the rest of the world, it makes sense for more of our people to learn other languages, apart from Maltese and English. In 2011 out of the 5,058 students who left secondary school, only 1,462 (29%) studied Italian; only 1,164 (23%) studied French, only 262 (5%) studied German and only 205 (4%) studied Spanish. To get on in the world of the 21st century we need to be competent in global languages like English and Spanish, and in other languages as well.  Thirteen years ago, when launching the European Year of Languages (which hardly left a trace on our islands!) the European Commission recommended: 'Teachers must also learn to implement approached to teaching that stimulate communication and make pupils aware of cultural and intercultural aspects of foreign language acquisition.'

More of our young people need to leave our secondary schools better equipped with the basic kit that will help them succeed in the years ahead. We should be doing more to create the supportive environment required by schools to concentrate on developing the indispensable linguistic, mathematical, scientific, technological and cultural literacy on which the future of all our children and young people depends.

A teacher of French wrote me the following letter: 'The number of students choosing French both at Form 1 and Form 3 level is dwindling. While some years ago we used to have two or three full classes in Form 1, nowadays we only have one class consisting of not more than 15 or if we are lucky, 20 students. According to statistics which our Education Officer quoted to us last week, the total number of students studying French in State schools dropped by one thousand students, from the beginning of the last scholastic year to the current one.

'We have been facing this problem from the moment it had been decided that students opting to continue their Post-Secondary Education at Sixth Form level, no longer needed to obtain an O-Level certificate in a specific language as an entry requirement. The reaction of most students was to opt for what in their opinion is the easiest way out - that of studying Italian. By no means do I intend to put Italian in a bad light, but it is a real shame that our students are not giving French and other languages their due importance, especially when other European countries envy our children's exposure to such a variety of languages, from a very young age. Besides that, French is a language which is spoken worldwide and therefore definitely provides many more opportunities, even within the EU itself.

'Unfortunately, in the past few years, nothing has been done to make the general public - parents and students alike - aware of the importance of studying languages. We hoped that with Malta's entry in the EU, the study of the French language would have been given a boost, but on the contrary, the situation regressed. It is true that 'taster' lessons are being delivered in primary schools to encourage students to choose the language, but in our case it has given very little results since both children and parents seem obsessed with the fact that Italian is easy. Apart from that, this is also putting a lot of teaching careers at stake because since secondary schools are closing down, teachers employed in the remaining closing down schools have no guarantee that they will continue teaching the language in the coming years, since there is no need for additional French teachers in the larger schools.

'Something needs to be done to promote French. From our part, I assure you that we are doing our utmost but we need your help.'

This cry for help cannot be ignored.

Evarist Bartolo is minister for education


Maybe we should start giving spoken French more importance, rather than written. Written French is unnecessarily complicated and doesn't give students the same satisfaction that spoken French can. It's more satisfying to be able to at least understand a TV programme in French. If there's no satisfaction, students are not going to be interested. One more thing, encouraging low-cost travel at a young age, such as backpacking and hitchhiking through Europe, will expose our young to the invaluable use for foreign languages. It's incredible that many in Malta still think that English is all you need. Whoever thinks so has definitely not travelled much. English is useful, but it's not enough.