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Language choice in the Science classroom

Josette Farrugia + Jordan Mifsud

Maltese society has for years been described as bilingual. The national language is Maltese and is spoken by 90% of the population aged 10 years and over (NSO, 2007) while English is the second official language. The Maltese educational system too has been bilingual. Traditionally in schools the two languages have been taught side by side right from primary level education. The National Minimum Curriculum (NMC) published in 1999 considered ‘bilingualism as the basis of the educational system’ (Ministry of Education, 1999 p. 37) and sought to strengthen it by reinforcing the practice of teaching and assessing some subjects (including Science) in English and others in Maltese. It also recommended that code-switching (alternating between languages within the same conversation) should only be used in cases of severe pedagogical difficulties. A decade later, with a new National Curriculum Framework in the pipeline, some educators argued that the traditional practice of teaching subjects, such as Science, in English should be reconsidered as it may be a barrier to student progress (Fenech, 2009). In 2012 a new National Curriculum Framework (NCF) was published (Ministry of Education and Employment) after months of consultation. The NCF gave no clear direction about language of instruction but recommended that a group be set up to draw up a policy on multilingualism in education.

In this scenario we set out to delve into the complex issue of language in Science education and explore the language practices evident in Maltese science classrooms in an attempt to contribute to the discussion related to language policy in education in Malta.

‘Findings seem to suggest that teachers may be overcautious and were using Maltese in class irrespective of the students’ achievement level and English language competence.’

Our study (carried out between 2010-11) investigated language choices, function and code switching in Science lessons. Classroom observations, interviews and focus groups showed that in the 32 state school classes  studied, 12-13 year old students were being taught Science predominantly in Maltese, while reading, writing and formal assessment were in English. Students who were more exposed to English, irrespective of class stream, used this language more frequently than those who were less exposed to the language. The findings seem to suggest that teachers may be overcautious and were using Maltese in class irrespective of the students’ achievement level and English language competence.

One may argue that it is important that teachers adapt to the students’ needs to ensure that curricula and programmes are in tune with students’ needs. While in some cases pedagogical difficulties made the use of English impossible (such as in the case of students with severe lack of competence in English who follow a basic skills literacy programme instead of the mainstream programme in English), the use of Maltese was widespread even in situations where the use of English, for the benefit of the students, could have been possible. The 1999 NMC document had a particular aim: to ensure that students are bilingual by the time they leave compulsory schooling. Concern has been expressed that English proficiency is declining at all levels (Fenech, ). If our study is representing the current state in Maltese classrooms it is no surprise.

We believe that, in view of the results of this study and other studies (Scicluna, 2009; Esposito and Baker-Ward, 2013) science educators and policy makers should be urged to help students develop further their bilingualism and not to relinquish this important advantage of Maltese society. Biliteracy is a valuable resource and we should do our best to ensure that students develop this resource as fully as possible. While code-switching may initially provide technical terms and serve as a bridge between the two languages, it can give way to a more precise and formal use of English thus ensuring both the learning of Science and development of bilingualism.

Including a policy statement in a curriculum document is clearly not enough. Teachers’ beliefs, views, knowledge and fluency in the language must be taken into consideration since changes in the curriculum ultimately depend on teachers. The question of language choice and practices, for Science teaching, learning and assessment, is an important question that urgently needs to be confronted. The sooner this is done, the sooner a strategy can be planned and applied to specific students’ needs.


A paper reporting this study may be accessed at


Esposito, A.G, & Baker-Ward, L. (2013). Dual-language education for low-income children: Preliminary evidence of benefits for executive function. Bilingual Research Journal: The Journal of the National Association for Bilingual Education, 36(3), 295–310. doi: 10.1080/15235882.2013.837848

Fenech, R. (Ed.) (2009). Il-bilingwiżmu f’pajjiżna: x’inhu l-aħjar għal uliedna? [Bilingualism in our country: What is best for our children?]. Floriana, Malta: Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ilsien Malti.

Ministry of Education. (1999). Creating the future together: National Minimum Curriculum. Floriana: Ministry of Education.

Ministry of  Education and Employment. (2012). A National Curriculum Framework for all. Floriana: Ministry of Education and Employment.

National Statistics Office. (2007). Census of population and housing 2005. Valletta: National Statistics Office.

Scicluna, R. (2009). Language and mathematical problem solving among form 4 Area Secondary School bilingual students (Unpublished B.Ed. dissertation). University of Malta, Msida.