Friday 19 October 2018

Knowing how to read in your mother tongue should not be so hard

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

The recent findings of an international study which measured the reading skills of Maltese children in their first language when compared with other nationalities, and which classified our country in 40th out of 50th place, was met with dismay by some people. How could it be that, with all the pressure and the expectations which so many parents place on academic achievements, our children are registering such poor results?

As reported by Malta Today: “The report placed Malta in 40th place out of 50 participating countries, as the very worst performing among European countries.
The Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS) 2016 report showed that the reading score of students in the Maltese language – 452 – was lower than 2011’s score of 457. In 2011, the test was administered to 10-year-olds in Maltese as a benchmark exercise but the main test was administered in English reading, resulting in a score of 477. In 2016, the main test was administered in Maltese only.”

For the purpose of the study, ten-year-old students were selected randomly from 95 primary schools, representing all parts of the island. 2,033 students were selected from 62 state schools, 1245 students were selected from 25 church schools and 369 students were selected from eight independent schools.

However, a spokesperson from the Education Ministry said that: “The current PIRLS mechanism does not recognise the current bilingual situation in Malta where children in the different school sectors have Maltese or English as their first language, and the situation of small countries where the relatively small student numbers do not allow big data statistical analyses.”

While I can understand the attempts to explain and downplay the negative results because the ‘first language’ criteria varies from one child to the next, it would be misguided to wave away the significance of the results and to not take stock of the situation. After all, we are not the only country in the world which is bi-lingual. I feel that this study, which is carried out every five years, should be taken as a rude awakening as it gives us a snapshot of the literacy skills among children today as a result of our perennial hang-ups about language.

It is very true that in some households English is the first language, but where I think certain parents are going wrong is that they view the study of Maltese as some kind of necessary evil, and a subject which has to be studied almost grudgingly like a foreign language. I have often overheard snippets of conversation among parents bemoaning how difficult Maltese is, and how boring, and how they have to sit down with their children and go over the grammar and the spelling with the same dread as if they were being subjected to Chinese water torture. Now, if parents are constantly sending the message that Maltese (which is, after all, our mother tongue) is a subject to be abhorred, how on earth can they expect their children to embrace it, let alone enjoy reading books in the language?

Exposing children to both English and Maltese at an early age is an idea which is to be encouraged, and over the years I have seen a lot of psychological barriers falling when it comes to which demographic prefers speaking in one language rather than another. Obviously, you still get pockets of resistance, but on the whole I have seen a dramatic change, so much so that you see children who speak English fluently and confidently (also picked up from television and youtube videos), even though their parents are predominantly Maltese speakers. Generally speaking, it is then left to the grandparents to ensure that the children are exposed to the Maltese language (unless one of the parents speaks to them only in Maltese which is the recommended method to ensure proper bilingualism).

Obviously, there is also the inevitable smattering of Maltese words which infiltrate the spoken English, but this has always been the case here where code-switching happens so easily as we unconsciously move from one language to the other without our realizing, and we have to school ourselves to stick to one language at a time.

Verbal skills, however, are more easily acquired in any language than reading skills are. So even though they hear the language all around them, when it comes to reading in Maltese, children are stumbling. Apart from the resistance to the language itself by those who don’t consider it really that important but just an academic drudgery, there is also the indisputable fact that reading a book as a leisure activity is not something all children see their parents do. If a home is not filled with bookshelves filled with beloved, treasured books, if a mother or father never sits down to read with a child, and most significantly if a child never, ever sees you pick up a newly-purchased book and enjoy the pure bliss of reading it, it will be very hard to lecture them sternly to go to their room and read a book. Reading becomes associated in their minds with boring study, with homework, with school, with something they “have” to do, rather than something which they look forward to doing in the same way they look forward to watching their favourite TV programme.

Apart from the real need to instill a love of reading in children, we really also need to instill a love of our mother tongue. Maltese is part of our identity, it is what makes us a nation, it should be cared for by ensuring that we spell it properly rather than lazily, it should be handed down to children as something to be proud of, rather than treated with contempt. There are so many lovely children’s books in Maltese these days thanks to dedicated publishers and authors. So really, what is your excuse?

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