Our languages and history define what we are as a nation. Malta is one of a few genuinely bilingual countries that has a rich history going back for millennia. It is, therefore, worrying to know that declining levels of competence in both English and Maltese writing is developing in a trend, especially among younger people. It is also disconcerting that the popularity of history as an academic subject is in decline.
A report by examiners of the history Matsec exam held last May confirms that only 189 students sat for the subject. Just two candidates answered the exam questions in Maltese. The others opted to go for English. Examiners were worried by the “lowering of linguistic skills among candidates”, a concern that was also raised by examiners in other subjects.
The report went further and gave a few examples of howlers found in the answers submitted. Some students who chose to study and sit for exams in local history did not know much about the language question that dominated Maltese politics in the interwar period or who was Prime Minister in 1964 when Malta gained independence. One shudders to think how many more students who do not specialise in learning history have insufficient knowledge of our heritage as a nation.
There is no doubt that, today, there are so many varied cultural experiences that most young people feel no particular attraction to learn about how we evolved historically as a nation. It must also be said that the lack of interest in history is not a characteristic of just local youngsters. This phenomenon is not entirely the fault of today’s younger generations but it still does not augur well for the survival of our unique culture in the future. Educators need to spark a fire in the intellect of young people by making history exciting and easy to understand.
It is crucial that young people do not just learn political history, which tells the story of those who ruled the country over the centuries. Students need to know more about the social and economic history that tells the story of how ordinary people lived and struggled to make a living in the past.
The declining competence in the use of English and Maltese is a slow-burning issue that threatens to destroy an essential part of our culture and one of our competitive advantages. Many blame the social media for corrupting the way we communicate in everyday life. However, there are probably more reasons why this phenomenon is developing into a crisis. Once again, policymakers and educators need to raise the importance of language learning to a higher level.
A lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, an IT expert, a nurse and an office worker who cannot understand and write well in both English and Maltese can never function as effectively as s/he should. While it is understandable that specific subjects in the chosen areas of study will be prioritised by school curricula, the importance of mastering communication skills should never be underestimated.
The Matsec board’s report findings are not just an eye-opener for students. They are a wake-up call for the educational authorities to acknowledge how the country may not be giving enough importance to elements of our culture that define us as a nation.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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