Not just a language

The traditional fluency of the English language among Maltese is something that spreads through all industries and sectors.

For centuries, the Maltese have felt the need to be bilingual. We have always had limited natural resources and for many years our livelihood depended on our communication skills, especially with foreigners. We have reinvented ourselves and we have moved from a strategic naval focal point to a major player in financial services. Malta has always managed to be ahead of the curve.

One of our big assets is the English language, and the fruit that we have gained through this advantage cannot be underestimated. But we cannot simply discard our national heritage.

The Maltese language has provided us with a linguistic background that many others envy. As such, besides furthering our proficiency in the English language, it is equally important that we strengthen our national language. We must ensure that Maltese authors are supported in various ways to ease publication of appropriate literature, that will encourage our secondary school students enjoy their preparation for SEC examinations in Maltese literature. Maltese language teaching should also give the right emphasis to the practical use of the language, especially in vocational training and its usage in later life.

Nevertheless, the importance of English language proficiency cannot be emphasised enough. Recently, reports have indicated a sharp decline in the level of English in our country. We cannot risk losing our bilingual status. We must work hard to halt this slide as otherwise we could endanger the economic edge that we have gained over the years.

Our bilingual assets have helped us across the board and cannot be cordoned off in a particular industry or sector. The traditional fluency of the English language among Maltese is something that spreads through all industries and sectors.

Employees of German, Nordic and, of course, British companies settle much more easily here than, say, Italy or Spain, because they can communicate from day one. A senior official of one of the largest companies operating out of Malta once told me that the some of the main reasons for choosing Malta as an operational base were simply because of our English speaking skills, besides offering a very good technical education.

Proficiency in the English language is also especially important for those who come to Malta with children. When their children are able to follow what is happening in class and understand their fellow pupils, they settle more easily.

Tourism, the education/training industry and local businesses working in a global environment are hugely dependent on the fact that there is no linguistic barrier, giving them a competitive edge. It is worrying, then, that our bilingual status is at risk. The fact is that our standard of English is in decline. Research is available to prove this, but nobody needs convincing; they see it everywhere.

'Should of' instead of 'should've', 'your' mixed up with 'you're' and 'recieve' instead of 'receive' are common errors that should be picked up in the first years of primary school, not at University level. We can put the blame on television, lack of interest in books and the internet but the problem lies deeper.

We must raise standards and we should start doing so at an early age - which is why one of the pillars of the childcare centres initiative for working parents is an educational experience. This is an absolute priority. At such a young age, it is crucial that children begin to develop the language and cognitive skills that will serve them well throughout life. Kids are very much open to learning and absorbing information. Evidence suggests the cognitive development of kids is improved enormously by the number of languages they learn. Concerns about confusing young children by giving them more than one language at a time are misguided.

If we allow ourselves to be asleep on this issue then other countries will overtake us. Across Europe there is a strong drive for improved English from a very young age. It would be a tragedy if sides were inverted and we ended up behind other countries. Not only would we lose our competitive edge in economic terms, we'd all be poorer, both academically and as a society.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education