PRESS RELEASE BY THE MINISTRY FOR EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT Two languages, multiple realities; insights into a study on language use in early childhood classrooms in Malta

A research study carried out by the National Literacy Agency of the Ministry for Education and Employment has revealed that most early childhood educators in Malta believe in the promotion of bilingualism with young children. The mixed-methods study was made up of a quantitative and a qualitative component. Questionnaires were distributed among 450 early childhood educators (teaching in Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2 classes) and an ethnographic study based on classroom observations and interviews with educators was carried out in five schools.

The study illustrates ways in which educators promote Maltese and/or English in their classrooms. Despite believing in the importance of bilingualism, there were mixed beliefs about how this can be translated into practice. The case studies reveal that input in Maltese or English varies greatly across schools, very often depending on school sector and on classroom demographics. The study also highlights ways in which educators are agentive in their choice of bilingual strategies and how they negotiate these strategies based on individual learner needs, parental expectations and instructions given by senior management teams. Some educators adopt strategies that aim for a separation of languages, while others adopt strategies based on flexible use of language. The quantitative study reveals that the majority of educators believe that being flexible in their language use in class is an important strategy to cater for individual learner needs.

Minister for Education and Employment Evarist Bartolo congratulated the National Literacy Agency on its work and the intesive study it conducted in order to showcase the present scenarios within our classrooms at kindergarden level. Minister Evarist Bartolo stressed the importance of bilingualism and the need to keep improving our Maltese and English language standards and provide the necessary training and professional development in our schools. The Maltese language is important to us because it gives us an identity, but English is as important as nowadays it is also needed within the digital and technology sectors. The minister concluded by stressing the importance of learning a third language to widen our abilities.

Maltese educators are clearly aware of the importance attached to bilingualism in Maltese society. The study sheds light on certain practices that revolve around structured teacher-led activities, which focus on the alphabet and numeracy, with little time dedicated to communicative activities and play. The sole focus on these types of activities leaves little space for authentic communicative opportunities that help children develop their competences in the two languages.

Professor Charles Mifsud stated that it is clear that bilingual education in Malta is strong, however we need to continue our concerted efforts to sustain this and improve upon it. Knowing two languages and more is a huge asset for us and we need to maximise this.

Dr Lara Ann Vella states that this study recommends that early childhood educators reflect critically on their language use in class. They should consider all activities in their classrooms to be language-learning opportunities.

The study also sheds light on the complex multilingual reality that educators face during their practice. Of particular concern is the fact that some educators assume that all migrant children are a homogenous group who are competent in English, and in fact they are referred to as English-speaking children, with no reference to their first language/s.

The study concludes that bilingualism in early childhood education contexts in Malta has to be interpreted in light of the language attitudes and ideologies that are associated with language use. Educators comment on the fact that children are aware of these attitudes from a very young age and can translate these into practice. This highlights the pivotal role of parents, who are children’s first language teachers, to communicate positive attitudes towards Maltese, English and other languages. The study highlights the fact that there is awareness among educators about the importance of bilingualism in the early years. However, it recommends that all stakeholders must examine their beliefs and practices to ensure that they are truly enabling all children to develop their bilingual competences.

Source: Government of Malta