Wanted: more students learning languages

A large number of students are leaving school at the age of 16 with no certification in foreign language skills, even though they have studied them for a number of years 

There are several advantages to learning a foreign language. Speaking two or more languages is a great asset to the cognitive process because the brains of bilingual people operate differently from single language speakers. Learning a second or third language is essential for a number of crucial fields like education, the arts, the sciences and the economy, as well as in the fields of innovation and creativity.

A large number of students are leaving school at the age of 16 with no certification in foreign language skills, even though they have studied them for a number of years. There is a perception that learning a language can only be an important prerequisite for just a few. Students see very little connection between what is taught in class and real life situations, even due to the fact that our assessment of languages is based almost entirely on writing skills.

Students who in their first years of studying a language fail to grasp the basic concepts, find it very difficult, if not impossible, to keep the pace with the other students in their year group.

There is very little exposure to languages. The main aim is to provide a method of learning, teaching and assessing the four basic skills or abilities in a language, namely speaking, listening, reading and writing. To reach our objectives, we had to ensure that more students had better opportunities to obtain certification in language proficiency.

Late last year we launched the Subject Proficiency Assessment (SPA) programme to ensure more widespread opportunities for the learning of languages. This is a different way to assess languages in secondary schools and it is in parallel with the SEC. Dr Mario Pace, the coordinator of the SPA programme and the person responsible for its design and implementation, has spearheaded a pilot project in Italian during the Scholastic Year 2014-15. A Working Group with major stakeholders regarding foreign language proficiency and certification was set up. This September, Italian, French and German at SPA level 1 will be introduced in four State schools.

The Subject Proficiency Assessment programme is intended as a homegrown alternative assessment, based on subject proficiency at levels 1, 2 and 3 of the Malta Qualifications Framework (MQF). It seeks to provide a clear description of what individuals ‘can do’ with language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context.

The current local situation in language certification among school leavers is not as positive as one would desire it to be. Among these we find an ever increasing number of students with no accredited certification in foreign language skills as well as in English and Maltese, notwithstanding the fact that they have studied these languages for a number of years, both at Primary and Secondary levels.

As a matter of fact, in the SEC examination session of 2011, 33.5% of those eligible did not sit for any foreign language examination. This figure increased in the last three years; to 39.1% in 2012, 38.5% in 2013 and 35.6% in 2014. Another significant percentage of students did not make the grade and in some cases did not turn up for the exam despite having registered.

Major stakeholders agree on the need of focusing on proficiency and certification of foreign language skills. The SPA certificate has been endorsed by representatives from various affiliations, including the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, the Malta Tourism Authority, the Ministry of Tourism, the Malta Gaming Authority, the Gozo Tourism Authority, the Institute of Tourism Studies, the Malta Chamber of Commerce, the Faculty of Arts, the Faculty of Education, and MCAST among others.

At ITS, the teaching of foreign languages currently totals 12 hours per week. Now we are proposing that this increases to 25 hours per week. Presently no foreign language is taught at MCAST but with effect from September this year, students following “Financial Services” will be offered French, and students following “Marketing” courses will be offered Italian.

We are giving students a greater exposure to languages and the quality of the language environment is of paramount importance. Students cannot be exposed only to classroom skills, and without the proper exposure, proper learning cannot take place.