French in gentle decline as German grows in popularity at ‘O’ levels

Teenagers are more likely to sit for ‘Ordinary’ level exams in German and Spanish than they were 10 years ago

Teenagers are more likely to sit for ‘Ordinary’ level exams in German and Spanish than they were 10 years ago, but are less likely to opt for French, a language that fell from being selected by 25% of all SEC candidates in 2008, to 18% in 2018.

Statistics from Matsec reports have shown how the language once considered to be part-and-parcel of Maltese 15-year-olds foreign linguistic choices – the other being Italian – has given way to other European languages.

Over the past decade the percentage of candidates sitting for Italian remained stable after a sharp drop between 2003 and 2008, when the percentage of candidates sitting for the exam dropped from 39% to 33%.

An examiners’ report published in 2008 already noted the “steady decrease in numbers and percentages [which] must be tackled at all levels by whoever is involved in the teaching of the Italian language in Malta.”

This decline mirrored the lower exposure to Italian TV as a new generation of students exposed to cable and satellite TV in the mid-1990s grew up on a diet of American cartoons and shows, rather than the standard fare up on offer till then: seven Italian television stations and the national broadcaster TVM.

By 2012, the number of candidates taking Italian reached an all-time low of 28%. But since then the number has stabilised around the 29% mark.

On the other hand, the decline in the number of candidates sitting for French – a language which never enjoyed the cultural exposure Italian had in Malta – has been more pronounced in the past ten years, dropping from 25% in 2008 to 21% in 2012, and to 18% in 2018.

In contrast comes the rise in the percentage of candidates sitting for the German exam, which fell gently from 7% in 2008 to 5% in 2012 and now climbed to 9% in 2018.

In 2017, 63% of the candidates taking French at ‘O’ level were girls. Similar percentages were evident for Spanish (60%), Italian (55%), and German (51%).

65% of those sitting for the French exam hailed from church schools and independent schools, in contrast to Italian, where 51% hailed from these non-state schools.

Although Malta is increasingly cosmopolitan and exposed to foreign trade and investment, students remain conservative in their language choices with Italian and French remaining the top two choices.

The number of students sitting for Arabic, a compulsory subject before 1987, has remained very low even if numbers have marginally increased in the past decade from just 11 students in 2008 to 57 students in 2018. The increase in students sitting for the exam can be attributed to the increase of students hailing from the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, an examiners’ report issued last year notes that “the majority of candidates were either of Arab origin or native speakers of Arabic”. Only 30 students sat for their exam in Russian in 2018, up from 13 ten years ago.

And in 2017, only 12.8% sat for two other languages apart from English and Maltese and most of these opted for Italian and French. 62% sat for one foreign language while less than 1% (7 students) had sat for exams in three languages.

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