Tuesday 28 January 2020

What will forcing another foreign language really achieve?

This article first appeared in Malta Today

Cori “Coco” Gauff, the 15-year-old American tennis sensation who stunned the crowds when she beat her idol Venus Williams and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, caught everyone’s attention not only because of her amazing tennis skills but also because of her mental strength. This ability to perform so well under the pressure at one of the world’s toughest sporting events at such a young age, did not come around by accident.

One of the things which her parents have worked on with her is to “normalise” big moments, in order to get used to playing under pressure. According to an article carried in the Sports Psychology for Tennis website, just before her big match against Venus Williams, Candi Gauff (Cori’s mother) told Cori:

“Don’t make things bigger than they are, pretend you’re at your home park having a match with your hitting partner.” Past experiences like these helped Gauff learn how to control her emotions and not put too much pressure on herself. Before the match Gauff reminded herself to stay calm despite the “big stage” she would be playing on and her impressive opponent.
Gauff: “I definitely had to tell myself to stay calm. I have never played on a court so big, but I had to remind myself that the lines on the court are the same size, everything around it might be bigger, but the lines are the same and after every point I was just telling myself to stay calm.”

Those who watched Gauff on court and during interviews were also impressed by her poise and maturity, something also instilled in her by her parents. One commentator pointed out that her father used to urge her to address their Church congregation from the time she was six years old. Growing up she was exposed to a wide range of sports and activities by her parents who were both athletes themselves. Because she has been travelling for tennis tournaments from a young age, she takes virtual classes, and has also been home-schooled by her mother who is a teacher.

Of course, not everyone can achieve this kind of psychological and emotional maturity – some do not even achieve it at adulthood, let alone at the age of 15. But I have quoted this example because it illustrates what is often missing from our educational system when it comes to achieving a rounded formation of children and adolescents. It is a type of holistic approach towards building one’s character and personality which cannot be taught from books, or through traditional, formal academics.

I often observe children as young as 3, 4 and 5 and am mesmerised by their creativity, imagination, inquisitiveness and eagerness to explore the world around them and to discover new ideas. They are constantly asking “why?” which while it can admittedly become a very tedious question for exhausted parents, is actually a wonderful thing because it means that they have an innate wonder at life. Even the introduction to a new word can capture their attention and it is charming to witness their delight as they test it out on their tongue, trying it out for themselves, and giggling if it makes a particularly funny sound in their ears.

So what happens from the time they start formal schooling until they emerge at the other end at Form 5, and in some cases, post-secondary education? What has occurred which has squashed their personality and stifled any of their attempts to keep asking “why”? More pertinently, what are we actually hoping to achieve by forcing students at Sixth Form (aged between 16 – 18) to learn another foreign language at this point in their studies?

An astute observation on my last article “Are exams producing quality students?” posted by a Emma Calleja, a young Maltese woman who left Malta to work abroad, points to a possible explanation:

“Maltese education is not geared towards producing leaders, innovators or free thinkers. It produces followers… The labour quality is consequently extremely low. Whether this is the fruit of our inexperience in general or whether this is a strategic move to keep people ignorant is yet to be determined. All we know is that the majority of the workforce is primarily good for the routine, operational, non-value add work (besides the low wages, this also explains why the operational branches of larger companies are set up here). A lot of foreign employers here struggle to get anything else out of them, some even say they’ve been dogmatized to the extent they are scared to challenge anything in fear that this might be interpreted as “questioning authority” which, in their view could lead to dismissal. That kind of fear sticks like bacteria to the extent that when they get hired in open work cultures, they simply do as they’re told. In today’s world, that’s synonymous for redundancy. When salaries hit a certain level, operational services get outsourced or off-shored to much cheaper countries (India, Czech or Hungary to mention a few). To prepare our workforce for the future, education must be thought-driven.. skills like creativity, coding and soft skills must be taught. I was stunned to read about (foreign) languages – that’s already an old-fashioned concept in the developed north. Malta is approximately a decade behind.”

I cannot fault any of her arguments, although I did point out that in some cases, yes, an old-fashioned style of management, of which there is still a lot in Malta, does brand people who question things as being troublemakers, so fear of losing one’s job is often justified.

However, I have to agree with the rest of her analysis. There is something fundamentally lacking in too many of our teenagers who have jumped through all the hoops required of them until they land at Sixth Form. Now we have been told that there is yet another hoop they will have to jump through.

According to the The Times report:

“Students may have to take up a compulsory language other than Maltese and English in their sixth form syllabus, according to new proposals. The reform would enrich students’ European identity and intercultural skills, the Matriculation and Secondary Education Certificate (Matsec) office said…The move would “serve the changing socio-economic needs of Maltese society within a European and global context,” a statement said.”

Other parts of the reform are commendable, such as the fact that credit will be given to students for their involvement in “social engagement and enterprise” as well as recognition of talented athletes. To be clear, I have nothing against learning another language – the more languages one knows, the better. But there are two issues which have to be considered: first, making it compulsory at this point in their education is not the way to go about it (let us not forget how Systems of Knowledge was similarly imposed and how badly that went) and secondly, as rightly pointed out by Associate Professor in Arts Education, Raphael Vella, “where are the Arts in this reform?”

I would also add, where is the move to a more holistic education? We need teenagers to be exposed to debating skills and critical thinking, who are encouraged to challenge their teachers and not to sit there, meekly and passively in the classroom, as they have been probably doing since Year One (and probably since kindergarten).

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, it is all very well to expect teenagers to embrace another language in a world which has become one huge melting pot, but shouldn’t we ensure that their Maltese and English are up to scratch first? The standards of our two official languages, both verbally and written, have plunged faster than a skydiver without his parachute, and nothing is being done about it. Pass marks are given on assignments with horrific spelling just as long as the student seems to be able to approximately reproduce the subject matter, which is surely a contradiction of what post-secondary (and even secondary) education should be all about.

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