As from the coming scholastic year the Education Ministry will introduce a rethought Foreign Language Awareness Programme (Flap) in Year 3 of State primary schools. The proposed Flap aims to reflect and implement the principles of multilingual and intercultural education in the teaching of languages. It recognises the importance of linguistic diversity and supports language learning as a lifelong task that is essential for economic competitiveness and inclusive societies. It also recognises the importance of investing in education and human capital as Malta’s most important resource.

The programme will focus on helping children learn multilingual and intercultural competences from an early age and lead them to develop a better knowledge of languages, the skills to learn them, and positive attitudes towards linguistic diversity.

One of the greatest benefits for a child learning a foreign language is that of becoming aware of cultures distinct from one’s own. This is especially true for children living in a small country such as Malta. Even though the island’s demography has become much more heterogeneous in recent decades, it is still very homogenised.

Today, being fluent in only one language seems to be the exception rather than the rule given that many languages are spoken in the vast majority of classrooms in European countries, and Maltese classrooms are no exception. It is becoming almost impossible to find a classroom in which all students speak the same language. This makes it essential to find ways of addressing issues and challenges arising from diverse populations and multilingual and multicultural settings that were formerly unknown to primary classrooms.

Beyond doubt, one of the greatest challenges is that the student population has become more heterogeneous than ever before, with students sitting next to each other in the same classroom speaking different languages and representing a variety of cultural backgrounds.

If addressed carefully, this situation should provide an excellent opportunity to renew students’ and other stakeholders’ interest in learning foreign languages. If they learn to be proficient in more than their mother language and English they will find it much easier to communicate effectively with classmates who do not speak these languages.

A key component of foreign language curricula is preparing learners to interact appropriately and effectively when they enter into intercultural relationships. Indeed, learning a new language shows children that there is more to the world than that which they see and interact with. It adds a new way of describing the world, and thus a new way of seeing it.

To achieve all this, Flap activities may be included in schools’ calendar of events and may include school assemblies focusing on interculturalism, storytelling, drama/role play activities and cookery sessions. Schools will also be free to invite parents to attend and act as ambassadors of their respective countries, cultures and languages.

Dr Mario Pace