International schools are sometimes viewed as isolated ecosystems, with a different curriculum and nature. While many schools find ways to connect to their local community through field trips and activities, there can be a disconnect to the culture and people. A feeling of separate otherness can take place, and students may end up with a strong ethos of international mindedness within their own bubble, but simultaneously lacking real local understanding.
This academic year, Verdala International School added Maltese Culture and Language to its Middle Years curriculum. For some, this was an overdue decision; for others, it came with questions.
Malta is a dual-language country, so speaking Maltese is not needed to get around. Furthermore, many of our families are transient and not necessarily interested in learning a language they may never need again.
But it was evident to us as a school that this was an important step in our journey. When adding Maltese, we were very clear that we did not want a pure language class but a cultural and linguistic course. The aim is for our students to understand the Malta they live in, connecting to its wonderful history, current events and everyday life.
Learning additional languages helps brain development, short-term memory, and problem-solving skills
Learning the local language is a direct pathway to cultural connection; through it we discover nuance, behaviour and history.
A historical example of how important is the connection of language to culture can be seen in the 1971 uprising of Bangladesh – the fight for independence was intrinsically linked to the rights of language, culture and traditions.
Many countries and indigenous groups are investing in their heritage languages to avoid losing this essential connection to their roots. And to this end, UNESCO marks International Mother Language Day every February 21.
Until a student is genuinely bilingual, we need to value their backstory, by offering opportunities for their home-language(s) to become part of their journey. We do that by encouraging families to nurture their child’s home language outside of school. We ask families to pay attention to their children’s home literacy skills and arrange play time with other same-language families.
Once a year we celebrate everyone’s language through our International Languages Month, which runs alongside our Maltese-heritage focus. This year, the students shared tongue-twisters from their home countries, followed by a variety of oral readings of The Little Prince, which proved to be a delightful way to share each student’s home language.
Languages at VIS is both a door to international mindedness and part of our holistic education. While our 50+ nationalities may need English support to access their education, we foster a range of further language options that broaden as they get older. Research shows that learning additional languages helps brain development, short-term memory, and problem-solving skills.
We recognise that students think faster in their home-language; forcing them to do maths in English, for example, could slow them down.
It is essential to nurture students’ home-language literacy as it benefits their writing skills in the second language. In the IB diploma we offer self-taught literature as an option, as some students choose to return to their home-country for university.
Students who grow up in a multilingual environment, such as one where multiple home languages are spoken alongside different school or local languages, can become highly skilled linguists. These students, far from being confused, jump between languages like switch-tracks, and with that, learn the nuances of the language, often pointing out the funny differences between words that might mean something cheeky in one language compared to another.
Equally, it can be fascinating watching a Spanish speaker learn Italian or vice versa, as the language patterns appear and give them confidence. It is also noticeable that once a student has one additional language, the next is easier, as the brain has developed that learning skill.
By stimulating the grey matter in the brain, we can not only improve our communication, but also appreciate each other within our multicultural societies. As my teacher champions reminded me – Il-lingwa hi dik li aħna. (Language is the essence of who we are).
Totty Ellwood Aris is head of Verdala International School.