Study exposes Maltese-English language divide between state and private schools

Maltese prevalent language used at home by students attending both state and church schools, but not those attending private schools

Maltese remains the prevalent language used at home by students attending both state schools and church schools, but this is definitely not the case among students attending independent private schools.

This emerges from a study by researcher and linguist Lara Ann Vella, published in the latest edition of the Malta Review of Educational Research.

A total of 559 participants (202 adults and 357 children) took part in this study. Questionnaires for children aged 8 to 15 were distributed in class by the researcher. Parents were asked to fill in the questionnaire at home.

The study found that 60% of students who attend state schools always speak in Maltese with both their parents. Only a tenth speak to their parents exclusively in English. 80% speak mostly in Maltese to their mothers and 75% do the same with their fathers.

In contrast, over 40% of children who attend independent schools speak only English with their fathers and nearly 30% do so with their mothers. Overall 80% of students in these schools speak mostly English to their mothers and 75% do likewise with their fathers.

A more balanced picture can be observed among children attending church schools. In this category nearly a third speak mainly in English to both mothers and fathers, while nearly half speak mostly in Maltese.

The study also explored which languages are used at school, with almost a third of the children reporting using Maltese and English equally. Contrary to what happens at home, the use of Maltese only is among the least popular option.

When this data is broken down by school sector, more than one-third of children attending state schools claimed to use mainly Maltese, which is closely followed by the equal use of Maltese and English.

In church schools, the equal use of Maltese and English option is predominant, followed by the sole use of English by more than a quarter of the students attending these schools. In independent schools, the majority of children use mainly English or English only at school.

The study also found that while Maltese is predominantly used by 14- to 15-year-olds, English is more prevalent among younger children. This could be an indication that parents are more likely to communicate in English with their young children.

In which language do you speak to your mother?

  State Church Independent
Always or mostly Maltese 80% 50% 10%
Always or mostly English 10% 30% 80%
Equally 5% 15% 5%
Other 5% 5% 5%

In which language do you speak to your father?

  State Church Independent
Always or mostly Maltese 75% 45% 15%
Always or mostly English 10% 30% 75%
Equally 10% 20% 5%
Other 5% 5% 5%

The study investigated the attitudes and ideologies held by adults and children towards English in Malta.

English was mostly prized for it “instrumental value” with the authors noting that this reflects the fact English has gained both political power and economic value as a result of globalisation in recent years. In fact, the greatest positive value was given to English as a means to “get a good job.”

But more surprisingly participants were less likely to agree with the notion that using English will make you more educated and or more snobbish in Malta. But this could also reflect the fact that talking about social class could be “somewhat of a taboo topic in present society”.

One possible reason could be that respondents were reluctant to acknowledge social class differences in what is described in social research as “social desirability bias”.

The study reveals that those who speak mainly English to their mother show the most positive attitudes to the language not just towards its practical value but also in terms of group belonging and class.   

Speaking both Maltese and English equally was also linked to positive attitudes to English.

Parents are also more likely to link social class to the use of English more than their children.

The study concludes with a call for greater awareness of the Maltese context where English is not just a global language but also one which is used in daily interactions, often co-existing with Maltese.

“The textbooks and materials used in classrooms rarely refer to the fact that English is used in Malta, as well as being a global language”.

A MaltaToday survey in 2018 found that Maltese was the spoken language at home for people of all ages but Labour voters are likelier to speak the mother tongue more frequently than Nationalist voters.

The MaltaToday survey found that 87.3% of those who voted for the Labour Party in 2017 said the frequently spoken language at home was Maltese, while 11.9% said they frequently used both Maltese and English.

Among voters of the Nationalist Party, 71.6% said they spoke Maltese most frequently at home while 26.1% spoke Maltese and English.

The figures show that spoken Maltese at home had a strong base in Gozo where 91.3% said it was the frequent language of choice

The prevalence of people who speak Maltese most frequently at home is highest among those with a primary education and decreases, the higher the education level the person has attained. The highest prevalence of those who speak Maltese and English is among those with a post-secondary education where 28.2% said they frequently used both languages at home, followed by those with a tertiary education  (23.9%).