According to a report prepared by a Council of Europe expert, Elidir King, embracing the concept of code-switching – the much maligned practice of mixing English and Maltese – and turning it into an asset could be the way forward for language education in Malta.

Education Minister Evarist Bartolo said that “it is important in today’s world to think beyond bilingualism and expose children to as many languages as possible”. He added that “in light of the upcoming review of the Learning Outcomes Framework, the time is right for a comprehensive action plan on the basis of the report’s recommendations”.

Dr King highlighted that code-switching is a normal phenomenon in any bilingual environment and can be positive “so long as it is not used to cover up deficiencies in one of the languages”. This is a crucially important proviso given the current abysmal state of both Maltese-speaking and English-speaking in Malta, where rampant “code-switching” has undermined the standards of both languages.

The report recommends “validating code-switching by researching the most successful practices currently being used by teachers and developing new training programmes to promote more effective approaches”. Perhaps Malta should use as its model for the attainment of good, spoken and written Maltese, as well as English, the methods practised by the Dutch, the Swedes and others whose fluent bilingualism, in both their mother tongue and English, is exemplary.

As to Dr King’s proposal that the range of languages taught in schools, such as Arabic and Chinese, should be expanded, this may prove more controversial.

Not only is there a danger of overloading an already packed curriculum but also, given Malta’s earlier political experience of introducing Arabic into our schools, this aspect could raise difficulties. He saw the value of this because of the linguistic links of Arabic with Maltese and its commercial, strategic and social importance to Malta. It might, however, be prudent to weigh these against the serious practical disadvantages.

We have been fortunate in Malta that the founding fathers of our Constitution had the foresight to make English one of the official languages of Malta, after Maltese. English is the language of global communication. It is spoken as a second language by about 375 million people. A quarter of the world’s population speaks it. It is the language not only of Shakespeare, Dickens and Jane Austen, but also, increasingly, of commerce, diplomacy, business, science, technology and the internet – all vital to Malta’s success.

In Europe, young people between 15 and 24 are five times more likely to speak English as German or French. At European Union meetings, speakers automatically choose the language that excludes the fewest people in the room. This is almost always English – which is quite simply the best instrument for communication because it is now the world’s language.

This is the fundamental issue that should determine how the report by Dr King is taken forward. The forthcoming Learning Outcomes Framework must beware the temptation to overreach the capacity to teach foreign languages in our schools. Moreover, the need to focus on better Maltese and better English should be central to the framework. This demands good teaching skills and standards in both Maltese and English, which are currently largely deficient.

Our bilingualism gives us a huge competitive edge. While a broader range of language teaching, including Arabic and Chinese, is important, fostering both good English and good Maltese must be the paramount objective in any action plan within the Learning Outcomes Framework.

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