Being both Maltese- and English-speaking is one of Malta’s fortunate quirks of history. The so-called ‘Language Question’, which wracked Malta’s politics in the 1920s and 1930s – a battle for dominance between Italian, English and Maltese as the language of administration – was resolved 75 years ago by the onset of World War II. With great foresight, those who framed the Independence Constitution established Maltese and English as the two official languages.
Today, a new Language Question confronts us. The examining board of the English language secondary education certificate notes the falling standards of written English. In fairness, the Matsec exam board also states the oral exam results were better but daily experience tells us this is only relative.
The board describes in scathing terms the poor standards of spelling and grammar achieved by 16-year-olds who have just completed 10 solid years of English tuition. It highlights the significant number of students who are “unable to distinguish between the tenses, produce abysmal punctuation (with some unable to differentiate between a comma and a full-stop), demonstrate poor spelling skills and commit grammatical inaccuracies”.
However, the effects of these discrepancies in written English do not end at age 16. Just 62 per cent of students striving for post-secondary education obtained the necessary grade in English. Of these, only 15 per cent were in the top two grades.
The after-effects of deficiencies in English are carried forward into Malta’s tertiary and further education and beyond. However, deteriorating standards of written or spoken English also directly affect the long-term product of Malta’s professional, commercial and political leadership. They also impact on the unique selling point which Malta has worked so hard to establish since Independence, a country where English, the global language of commerce and diplomacy, is the key means of communication.
Tourism has thrived on this. But so also have the financial and legal services, education, gaming, pharmaceuticals, the teaching of English as a foreign language and modern technology businesses in a country where foreign companies welcome the ability to operate through the medium of English. Incalculable economic benefits have accrued.
The Matsec report underlines a crisis in English-teaching in schools which has existed for years. Successive ministers for education have drawn attention to it. The current minister recognises the urgency of the problem and has expressed his determination to raise standards.
It is a battle that must be fought on several fronts. English teacher-training must be radically improved in the classroom, where it is clear that teaching standards are woefully inadequate. The code-switching between English and Maltese must cease. It is for serious consideration that the language of instruction in all subjects should be in English. Essay-writing must be inculcated and practised. Reading good English literature must be actively encouraged.
Malta, which has been placed by geography in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, enjoys a unique strategic advantage through its ability to conduct all its international business – commercial, economic, legal and diplomatic – in the developed world’s preferred language of communication. There is no country within a 500-mile radius of Malta that enjoys the same advantage.
It would be a prodigal act of irresponsibility if it were to relinquish this huge asset by failing to aim for the highest standards of written and spoken English.
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