Bilingualism, part of our Maltese identity

We should have the courage to offer programmes and accreditation to those students born in Malta to Maltese parents but whose first language at home is English

The University of Malta must send a strong message to students that foreign languages are important and not only for students following courses in humanities but also those taking up sciences
The University of Malta must send a strong message to students that foreign languages are important and not only for students following courses in humanities but also those taking up sciences

Maltese and English are part of our country’s identity and both are crucial for our country’s success. We need to recognise our linguistic reality, cherish it and even celebrate it. Three years ago we set in motion a collaborative exercise involving parents, educators and experts in the field to discuss and draw up a series of language policies in education for Malta and Gozo. We have recently launched the first ever language policy for the early years. Other policies for the later years will follow.

These policies are intended to offer opportunities for an informed debate about how we can enhance language abilities and to offer direction based on research and experience of effective good practice. The policy is intended to provide national guidelines for bilingual education at a young age by fostering a positive attitude towards Maltese and English. It includes recommendations and guidelines for parents and teachers, childcare administrators, and for those training educators.

We now recognise fully that exposing children to more than one language helps cognitive development and children’s overall learning abilities. Among the guidelines in the policy are fostering positive attitudes towards multilingualism, consistently exposing children to Maltese and English and working with educators to identify appropriate strategies and resources for bilingual language use in schools. We need more of our students to become more proficient in Maltese and English.

We should have the courage to offer programmes and accreditation to those students born in Malta to Maltese parents but whose first language at home is English. We need to develop programmes and pedagogy to reach these students through Maltese as an additional language. I call on those who really love the Maltese language and would like to see it flourish to help us make more of our students more proficient in Maltese. Even here a one size fits all approach does not work.

We still have a lot of work left to do to strengthen the levels of both English and Maltese and even more work to do when it comes to young people learning a third language. Half of our students are leaving compulsory schooling without even studying a third language. We have started reversing this worrying trend by managing to attract more students to take up foreign languages by launching new programmes in Italian, French, Spanish and German by offering programmes that develop the skills of talking, listening, reading and writing and placing language use in the context of daily life.

In the May session of this year of the MATSEC A level, only 6.7% of the students sat for a foreign language. Out of 4,025 candidates we had in Arabic, 4; in French, 57; in German, 17; in Italian, 152; in Russian, 5; and in Spanish, 36. Even fewer students sat for the September session and these would have included re-sits.

These numbers are certainly not sufficient and we need to strive for more. The University of Malta must send a strong message to students that foreign languages are important and not only for students following courses in humanities but also those taking up sciences.

It would be a shame for Malta to lose its ability to communicate in more than one language. The fact that most people can speak English gives us a competitive advantage and is a part of the reason foreign companies choose to invest in Malta. We need to have increased language learning opportunities in our schools and beyond as the knowledge of languages opens windows of career opportunities and increased levels of understanding, tolerance and communication.

As I said we have already registered some success through the Subject Proficiency Assessment (SPA) programme which seeks to present language learning in a more communicative and functional manner in applied situations. We shall intensify these efforts in the coming weeks and months.

Evarist Bartolo is minister for education and employment

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