Letters: 15 February 2015

I am not easily put off by figures and statistics but I must admit to having had some difficulty making my way about James Debono’s ‘Little pluralism in languages’ in MaltaToday of 8 February 2015. More importantly, it is my belief that by focusing on the way the modern language cake is divided between the different options on offer in our schools, as Debono does, we risk losing sight of something far, far more important, namely, the rapidly diminishing size of that cake.

Maltese society is indeed well on its way to following the UK’s lead in this and becoming functionally ‘illiterate’ as regards foreign language and culture skills and having to rely increasingly on importing this knowhow, but before I look into this matter I would like first of all to put forward what I consider to be a much simpler way of gauging how foreign language choices are evolving in Malta by reproducing the figures contained in Eurostat’s 25 September, 2014 news release, on the occasion of the European Day of Languages, which focused on the main foreign languages taught in European schools – English, French, German and Spanish.

Setting aside English, which in principle is studied by all Maltese students, the percentages of lower secondary school students studying French, German and Spanish in Malta in 2005, according to Eurostat, were 42.4%, 8.4% and 2.4% respectively. In 2012 the corresponding figures were 35.0%, 7.7% and 7.4%.

Where is Italian in all this, you may well ask? Italian is not often to be encountered on offer in European schools but our Italian cousins still occupy a special place in Maltese hearts and minds despite the disappearance of Italian TV from our radar. Statistics for SEC 2014 registrations and language take-ups in schools in October 2014 would seem to indicate that about half of those who sign up for foreign languages in schools in Malta choose Italian, just about the same as in 2006.   

I come now to what I consider to be by far the most important issue as regards languages, namely, that the number of our young people studying a foreign language is diminishing at an astonishing rate both in absolute terms and, even more worryingly, in relative terms compared to other countries.

Indeed, despite declarations by the government and business interests that languages are vital for our open, services-based economy, we are failing to equip our up-and-coming generations with the language skills required to communicate with the rest of the world. As a matter of fact we seem to have fallen into the trap of thinking that we can get by with our little bit of English of sorts, not unlike what has happened in the UK. 

I do not want to bother readers with too many wearisome statistics to show that the decline in the absolute numbers of students sitting for SEC exams in modern languages considerably exceeds the reduction due to demographic reasons, namely fewer children in schools, and it will suffice to say that while the number of students sitting for the SEC in English – in theory obligatory for all and as a consequence useful as a proxy of the demographic decline – has gone down 14% over the decade from 2004 to 2013, the numbers sitting for French and Italian have both gone down by more than double this rate, namely 38% and 30% respectively.

Of much greater concern in my opinion, is our relative decline compared to other European countries. In neighbouring Italy, just to cite one example, 100% of pupils at lower secondary level now study English, the same as Malta, but the proportions of Italian pupils studying French, German and Spanish have gone up from 46.3%, 4.9% and 3.6% respectively in 2005, to 69.9%, 8.5% and 20.5% respectively in 2012. All three languages have in fact seen a substantial increase in the numbers of pupils studying them in Italy, with the proportion taking up Spanish having increased by a spectacular 569% in a period of seven years. This contrasts markedly with the figures I gave above for Malta, which show a marked decrease for some languages.    

In recognition of this grave situation confronting Malta, the Faculty of Arts recently appointed a Languages Sub-Committee to look into this matter but even though it is too early to tell what its findings will be, it already seems clear that although the university itself can do more to encourage language take-up among its students the phenomenon will need to be tackled much earlier, in secondary and even primary schools. Luckily, moves are afoot at the Ministry of Education to try and address this new ‘language question’, but we shall have to wait to see how effective these new initiatives will be. 

Interestingly, we may not even need to look beyond our shores for examples of good practice in this regard. Figures for the numbers of pupils taking up modern languages in the first year of their secondary schooling in October 2014 compared to October 2013 indicate that while the take-up of modern languages in State schools continued to slip, the number taking up languages in Church schools increased by 11.1%.

Indeed, in 2014 more pupils took up a language in Form 1 in Church schools than was the case for State schools. Are Church schools doing something which State schools are not doing or was this some chance occurrence? If it is not a one-off and Church schools are in fact doing better at encouraging pupils to study languages then State schools could perhaps take a leaf or two out of the Church’s hymnbook. 

Prof. Carmel Vassallo

Chairman, Languages Sub-Committee, Faculty of Arts

University of Malta