English and Maltese can co-exist in harmony provided they are both taught properly, according to Adrian Underhill, one of the world’s most respected English Language Training professionals.
“Every country needs to diversify. Why not have two languages and play to the strengths of both?” said Mr Underhill, who was a keynote speaker at this month's ELT Malta conference, entitled Inspiring Teachers.
“Languages evolve and take on a life of their own. What you must do is to teach both properly. Of course they will merge, but each will come from a clear starting point and people can come back to that.”
Mr Underhill was aware of the historical, cultural and political concerns about Maltese being usurped by English, but he felt these fears were misguided.
“We are developing globally. We can have diverse things existing side by side, it does have to be either/or,” he said.
“Having two languages is not a big deal, especially if you are going to make money out of one. In fact, it seems like a very good idea.”
The second annual ELT Malta conference took place at the Radisson Blu in St Julian’s, attracting renowned international speakers and a considerable amount of local delegates from mainstream and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) schools.
Organised by the EFL Monitoring Board and the Education Ministry, the conference aimed to raise the profile of the local EFL industry, improve standards and facilitate the exchange of ideas.
The island attracted some 81,911 foreign students of English last year and Mr Underhill is not surprised by the success of the local industry.
“It’s a great place to learn English. A lot of language learners have to go somewhere to learn, so why not go to a beautiful place, sunny place? And there are no beautiful, sunny places except Malta,” he said with a smile, as he glanced towards the hotel’s pool.
Mr Underhill did not consider it a problem that students in Malta would not be constantly exposed to English outside the classroom, like they would be in the UK, for example.
“I would construe that as a positive. Students get exposure to other people working with two languages. They will live and interact with people who are bi-lingual, which they wish to become.”
A past president of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, Mr Underhill is a pioneer in the teaching of pronunciation.
He described pronunciation as the “Cinderella of ELT”, because it is often overlooked in favour of its two sisters: vocabulary and grammar.
Mr Underhill said it did not matter if someone spoke English with a Maltese, Scottish, American or Liverpool accent, provided their pronunciation was clear, correct and understandable.
“It is important that you learn pronunciation, and how you can change it; how you can escape from the grip of your mother tongue. It is important to tune your ear to hear new sounds,” he said.
Once a student learns correct pronunciation they are able to experiment with different accents, he added.
Daniel Xerri, chairman of the EFL Monitoring Board, also stressed that Maltese speakers should not feel threatened by the promotion of English language competency.
“We are a very proud of our bilingual status but we are dead set against the intellectual and linguistic insularity some people might be advocating,” Mr Xerri said.
He said the EFL Monitoring Board was in discussions with the Education Ministry on using expertise in the local industry to train mainstream teachers in English, in order to raise standards in line with the minister’s objective to improve competencies in both English and Maltese at school.
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