Malta is currently undergoing a long overdue, major paradigm shift in education, with newly proposed educational reforms aiming towards a more holistic view of teaching and learning. The examination system is currently being redesigned in order to include a variety of assessment methods to ensure equality, equity and success for all our students.

As part of these changes, the Ministry of Education is presently launching a public consultation exercise on new ways of teaching and assessing the Maltese language. One of the proposals is the introduction of a new exam which would assess Maltese as a foreign language.

There are conflicting reports regarding the details of this new method of assessment, however, both foreign and Maltese students would possibly be given the choice to sit for either this examination or the present Maltese Matsec ordinary level paper, with the possibility of both having equal weighting and accreditation.

Malta has become a cultural melting pot of sorts, resulting in the presence of many foreign children speaking a variety of different languages in our classrooms.  Therefore, keeping in mind the demographic changes which our country is presently facing, as an educator I wholly commend, welcome and look forward to the realisation of these proposals.

However, I am concerned with the fact that regrettably, as a result of these measures, some Maltese children would be regarding our native tongue, which is one of our two official languages, as a foreign language. 

The Constitution of Malta states that both Maltese and English are the official languages of Malta, and in effect the majority of Maltese people are bilingual.

Maltese is the dominant language of the majority of Maltese people, however, there is also a number of families who choose to adopt English as their first language. Language use is mainly a result of family background, socialisation, school environment and policies. Hence the level of language exposure to each language in Malta does indeed vary, and children are usually dominant in either of the two languages.

Nonetheless both Maltese and English are taught daily at school as from the very early years, and both languages are used interchangeably in day-to-day life. 

Code-switching is also a common linguistic practice on our island, and despite the fact that there is a general misconception that bilingual people code-switch due to a lack of proficiency in one or both languages, this ubiquitous phenomenon is typical among multilingual communities, and rather than being a language deficiency, it is usually a reflection of cognitive and communicative competence. 

The majority of Maltese children regard either of the two languages as L1 or L2 (first or second language) but not as a foreign language. A foreign language is usually introduced between the ages of 10 and 12, and Maltese children are usually given a choice between Italian, French, German or Spanish, depending on school curricula.

While I believe that there are individual and exceptional circumstances where a Maltese child has no control over whether or not they speak Maltese, or their level of proficiency in the language, these should be viewed according to their own merits, and a framework should be established to address these individual concerns. 

I feel that devaluing the importance of the national language of one’s country smacks of elitism, and may lead to cultural and social impairment. Research shows that there seems to be an educational disadvantage for bilingual children whose languages are not equally valued and supported within their community and school.

The present Matsec syllabus is way too extensive and hence needs to be revised in order to meet the requirements of all our students

An educational setting which respects and promotes bilingualism, and which attributes equal importance to both national languages, improves children’s self-esteem, enables them to establish themselves as part of their community, builds their cultural identities, and encourages them to become active and competent learners.  

I fear that regarding Maltese as a foreign language as opposed to L1 or L2 (in the case of some Maltese children who would have gone through the full 10 years of primary and secondary schooling in Malta) would indeed diminish the value of one of our two official languages. This is of major concern, especially since most indigenous and minority languages in the world are currently in rapid decline, and are facing a real threat of extinction. 

Human beings are innately wired to utilise language in order to facilitate communication, to express emotions, and to understand the world around them. As from a very tender age, bilinguals construct social identities through language acquisition and socialisation. Language also allows for distinction between nations, cultures and social groups.

There are a multitude of benefits associated with bilingualism. Primarily, bilingual children have an educational head start, due to the fact that as from an early age they consistently outperform their monolingual peers in tasks involving executive and attentional control.

Bilingualism is linked to increased meta-cognitive skills and a superior divergent thinking ability, together with an advantage in classification and visual tasks. Bilingualism is associated with more job opportunities and an increase in financial earnings, and is also linked to protection against cognitive decline. 

Proficiency in two or more languages is in effect associated with a delay in the onset of symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Malta has a unique and complex linguistic situation where bilingualism is a longstanding reality, with the simultaneous existence of at least two languages including Arabic, Latin, Italian, Sicilian, French, English and Maltese throughout the ages.    I believe that we are fortunate enough to have been born in a country which gives us the opportunity to be proficient in at least two languages, hence reaping all the benefits associated with bilingualism. 

Furthermore, I feel that we should be proud of the fact that we do possess a national language, despite the fact that we are a tiny island, and that Maltese is spoken only in Malta and by the Maltese who live abroad. We should therefore strive to protect our national language by placing equal importance on both our official languages, and not demoting the status of either one of them to that of a foreign language.

I feel that all foreign children and those having one foreign parent, together with Maltese students having exceptional circumstances, would undoubtedly benefit from these proposals. Moreover, I do believe that the present Matsec syllabus is way too extensive and hence needs to be revised in order to meet the requirements of all our students, to reflect the realities of today’s digital age, to place more importance on the communicative aspect of the language, and to conform to today’s all-inclusive educational system.

However, I feel that we should be working towards improving the levels of proficiency in alternative ways, rather than inadvertently risking a possible lowering of standards. Only in this manner can we guarantee the survival of our linguistic heritage for generations to come.

Michelle Panzavecchia is an educator and a University of Malta visiting lecturer.

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