I’ve recently read an article about MATSEC examiners labelling English O Level candidates ‘incompetent’. References were made above all to the incorrect use of grammar, including tenses and the use of pronouns. The article got me scratching my head not so much in disbelief as in wonder. Mind you, it’s not been the first time I’ve pondered as to why students in Malta fail so miserably to obtain a good mark in both official languages, Maltese and English.
I believe that grammar is learnt intuitively as one is growing up, but there are some major stumbling blocks along the way. One such hurdle, in my humble opinion, is code switching, or literally translating from one language to the other. When correcting students’ papers, I’ve always been shocked by the amount of grammar mistakes I encounter. Switching from English to Maltese makes the probability of being proficient in either language improbable. What some fail to realise is that both languages are extremely important and that we’re very lucky to be immersed at a tender age into a linguistic situation where we are highly exposed to the above-mentioned languages.
I’ve always failed to understand why some Maltese people always need to prove why English is more important than Maltese or vice-versa. It’s like a planned dog fight. Very often we’re incessantly bombarded by a hotchpotch of both languages. I believe that drawing a line between the two languages is of utmost importance. Grammar is affected negatively when switching from one language to the other. Some students make use of a feminine adjective with a masculine noun and vice versa in Maltese, or else literally translate expressions such as waqgħu fl-imħabba – ‘they fell in love’. The Maltese language is part of our identity and heritage, and we would be denying our very own roots if we fail to acknowledge it as a fact. On the other hand, waving off English in the hope of being insular is misguiding to say the least. English is an international language and an official language in Malta. Seeking to properly learn as many languages as possible broadens the mind. By properly, I mean separating the learning of one language from the other.
I believe that it’s also a lack of reading that is to blame for so many grammar, syntax and spelling mistakes. At home, I’ve always been spoken to in Maltese, but because I used to be a bookworm, my marks in English were always high. Many youngsters are nowadays exposed to British and American channels. This is why most of them are performing well in the oral part of exams. Undoubtedly, one positive aspect about being exposed to these channels is that it’s helped students feel more at ease when expressing themselves in spoken English.
However, the sole act of speaking a language doesn’t make one proficient in writing it, as is the case with many nationals who can barely write well in Maltese. As a teacher of Maltese, I rarely come across a pupil whose writing is excellent. The problem is that what was once thought of as a discipline, is now pathetically regarded as an act of cruelty, and telling children to study and read is now seen as an act of punishment. Reading stimulates the mind, helps children grasp the concepts of grammar and makes them learn spelling in an automatic way. It expands one’s knowledge and vocabulary, and helps to improve one’s writing skills. If we read frequently, our English or Maltese would be far beyond competent. Being proficient in the grammar of one language should pave the way to learn the grammar of another one more easily. Good grammar can save time and face. Employees who use good grammar show a level of professional competency that will hopefully be acknowledged. Establishing a level of superior communication skills could be one of the main factors that leads to a promotion in title or pay in the future.
Parents also play a role in helping their children, and although they’re sometimes accused of being fascists and overly concerned about technology, there’s a point there. Playing too many games and using playstations frequently might improve a child’s listening, but not his grammar. So finding a balance between what the children love doing and what’s right for them should help. Learning a language well should be more based on a love for reading and literature than just sitting for rigid examinations. That’s how one can learn grammar without it being a pressure cooker and embracing a language for a lifetime.