The Malta Independent 3 December 2021, Friday

Lost in translation: The younger generation’s failure to grasp a foreign language

Gabriel Schembri Monday, 9 January 2017, 07:40 Last update: about 6 years ago

More than one out of every four students chooses not to sit for any foreign language SEC exam, despite having studied the particular subject for more than five years.

This, together with other worrying trends, emerges in a study conducted by Dr Mario Pace, Resident Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education. MATSEC statistical reports show that the number of students who chose not to sit for a tertiary language exam peaked in 2012. Almost 40 cent of the students who sat for ‘O’ Levels in that particular year considered it unnecessary to sit for the exam. It is important to clarify that the term ‘foreign language’ does not refer to either Maltese or English. Italian, French, German and Spanish are the most common tertiary languages taught in Malta.


The statistics do show a slight improvement, as the percentage falls to 30.7 per cent in 2016. However, this should not serve as any consolation, as it means that more than one fourth of students in Malta choose not to sit for a foreign language exam.

The grades achieved can also shed some light on the current situation in Malta. Of those who actually decided to sit for a SEC foreign language exam in 2012, between 12 and 16 per cent achieved a grade of six or seven, which is a fail, and between 11 and 25 per cent of those who applied to sit the exam, chose not to attend when the time came. Similar results applied in both 2013 and 2014.

Italian still remains the preferred foreign language for students, followed by French, German and Spanish.

Dr Pace noted a phenomena in how younger generations struggle with learning Italian or any other foreign language. “We were raised in a generation where the Italian language was second nature to us. Younger generations, however, predominantly those aged 25 or under, were simply not exposed to the third language and therefore struggle to learn even the very basics.”

In fact, Dr Pace identifies the lack of exposure to languages as one of the main reasons why so many students quit language studies in schools. “A lot of students no longer perceive that learning a language can be an important prerequisite for a lot of opportunities in the future. We underestimate the value of knowing more than two languages.”

He said that the problem is symptomatic all across Europe and not just in Malta. “The problem is coming from above. The authorities and politicians preach that the most important developing business sectors are IT and sciences. This is true, but we cannot ignore the lack of the population’s ability to speak more than one or two languages.”

Dr Pace said that this is an even stronger case for Malta. “The two most important sectors for our economy are iGaming and tourism. Both, coincidentally, require the knowledge of multiple languages.”

Exposure still remains the biggest challenge. Most of the Maltese who are older than 25 years have spent countless hours watching Italian television channels. But the younger generations were exposed to English for far more hours than any other language. “The introduction of satellite and cable TV completely wiped out our exposure to Italian and it is this that is causing such results. You speak to a 70-year-old who is able to talk to you in Maltese, English and Italian, and then you speak to a 20-year-old student who cannot manage more than two basic languages. There’s something missing and we need to address it.”

The latest MATSEC report shows that more than 530 students did not sit for any exam at ‘O’ Level and some 766 chose not to sit for any foreign language exam.

The study clearly shows that all the major stakeholders agree on the need to focus on proficiency and certification of foreign language skills. One HR manager in one of the island’s leading hotels writes in the report: “We are encountering a situation where we are not finding people who can speak foreign languages. We find young prospective employees who struggle to conduct the interview in English. The upcoming generation cannot speak Italian. It is becoming almost impossible to find a person who can speak fluent French, German and/or Spanish and the majority of incoming tourists originate from these countries.”

What is worse is that during some interviews, hoteliers experience situations where a candidate presents an ‘A’ level certificate in a language but struggles to keep up a conversation in that language in which he is supposedly qualified.

The statistics are worrying and, as Mario Pace explained, this worry is also shared by Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, who appears to be willing to address the issue.

Asked to explain what schools can do to address this serious issue, Dr Pace said that the problem lies with the fact that language examinations produce a ‘global mark’ which does not distinguish between oral, written or comprehension. That is why he, with the support of the Ministry and relevant stakeholders, came up with the Subject Proficiency Programme. This SPP is aimed at dissecting a person’s language ability to encourage students to learn foreign languages and reduce the number of students with no language qualification. “We have to distinguish between one’s ability to speak, write or read a language. Having the oral examination account for 30 per cent of the total mark does not make sense. If you go round the streets and ask people on what occasions have they needed to write in a foreign language, they will most probably tell you ‘none’. But it’s a completely different story if you ask them how many times they have had to speak that particular language.”

The focus of this programme is ‘communicative competence’. It is not prescriptive and does not define the moment when a particular grammar point needs to be taught. The teacher may decide when and where a particular grammar point will be included in the teaching programme.

To achieve its goals, the programme eliminates the half-yearly exams and has no set text books. The classes are smaller and give equal importance to the four basic language skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing. In order to dissect language skills, instead of producing a global certificate, the SPA programme intends issuing a separate assessment and certification for the four language skills.

The first SPA pilot projects began in 2014. A total of 33 per cent of the participants passed in all the four skills, with 28 per cent passing in three skills, 17.5 in two and 14 per cent in one particular language skill.


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