From research-based interventions in New York to a children’s local council in Malta, international minds look for ways to create better urban design to increase residents’ quality of life. Martina Borg and Daiva Repeckaite tune in to hear their thoughts.Continue reading
Don’t judge too soon when children enjoy various online tools, says researcher Dr Velislava Hillman — and brings data to prove it.Continue reading
While some of us are privileged to be shielded from it, the truth remains — violence in Malta is rampant. From popular songs to neighbours’ conversations, the normalisation of abuse is shaping our communities and our basic understanding of healthy relationships. Words by Cassi Camilleri.Continue reading
Our childhood years are meant to help us develop our sense of identity, belonging, culture, and home. But what happens to those for whom childhood is dominated by moving to a new country with a new language, culture, and social norms? Prof. Carmel Cefai speaks to Becky Catrin Jones.
It’s a small world these days. Developments in technology and transport mean it’s much easier to pack your bags and head off for a fresh start in a foreign land. For many, the destination is Malta. As a beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea with a booming economy, it is no surprise that it’s drawing the attention of bright sparks and aspiring families from Europe and beyond. In fact, Malta currently boasts the fastest growing EU population.
Of course, it’s not always through choice that you might find yourself leaving your homeland behind. Humanitarian crises and ongoing wars in North and sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East have seen thousands set sail under the most treacherous conditions in search of safety. For this population, Malta is often the first port of call between the dangers of home and the promise of hope in Europe.
It seems strange to group these populations together, given the stark differences in the journeys that bring them to Malta and the life they seek here. But together, this influx of people has contributed to a sudden rise in interculturalism, where people from different backgrounds interact and influence one another. This is a reality all parties are having to adapt to.
Even in a fairytale scenario, childhood is challenging. Growing up when you’re far from home, look different to everyone around you, and don’t speak their language, makes the challenge reach a whole other level. Children’s wellbeing is an increasingly important and emotive topic to study in Malta, which is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. A team of researchers from the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health (University of Malta), set out to explore the situation. They questioned: How do you settle into a new home and identity when you are still trying to figure out who you are and where you are from?
Finding the voices
Children are often a silent group. When analysing the wellbeing or effect of migration on a population, they are usually spoken for by adults. For this study, however, Prof. Carmel Cefai and his team wanted the child’s voice as well. The scope of the study was ambitious; every single contactable, non-Maltese child living in Malta was invited to take part and share their experiences. But this was a challenge.
‘Identifying and obtaining access to foreign children from age zero to 18 was not easy… Some schools suffered from research fatigue and did not wish to participate; whilst translation of instruments and data and use of interpreters drained the limited budget we had for this project.’ Maltese children were contacted and invited to participate too. After all, they are as affected as anyone else when around one in ten of their schoolmates are not Maltese.
The study focused on four main areas; social interaction and inclusion, education, subjective wellbeing and resilience, and physical health and access to services. They covered the experiences of children up to 18 years of age, from various schools, who were either settled into their own family houses or still in open shetlers following a difficult journey to Malta. They also aimed for a balance in migrants’ nationalities; European, North American, African, Middle Eastern, or East Asian; as the experiences of each population are understandably different. Cefai and his team found that the experiences of migrant children in their everyday life are quite positive. In some areas, even more positive than those of Maltese children, with only 8% reporting difficulties in their psychological wellbeing compared to 10% in the native population. Overall, they found that migrant children feel safe, listened to, and cared for by the adults in their communities. Despite the language barriers, most feel like they have a support network, and enough friends though more often than not those friends are other foreign children, not Maltese.They are able to keep up at school, and generally do as well as their Maltese peers, with teachers reporting high levels of engagement.
Adapting to a new world
All is not rosy. Bullying in schools is quite common, though less frequent than that reported by native Maltese children. One in five migrant children also do not feel they have enough friends.
Younger children seem to be more included and engaged than secondary school ones, and in general females fared better in the study than male classmates. That said, age and gender weren’t the main influencers when it came to predicting how well the children engaged at school and in their communities. ‘The study suggests that there are different layers of reality, with the big picture hiding the socio-economic, psychological, and social difficulties encountered by a substantial minority,’ remarks Cefai.
Unsurprisingly, those who speak Maltese feel more engaged than those who don’t, and those who aren’t confident in English are in an even worse position. However, the factor producing the biggest differences between the overall wellbeing, health, and education of the children is their country of origin. ‘The health, wellbeing, and relative comfort enjoyed by many children of European economic migrants contrast sharply with the poverty, poor accommodation, psychological difficulties, learning difficulties, and experiences of discrimination of many children from Africa and the Middle East’, says Cefai. Western Europeans and American children scored highly over all criteria, whereas African and Middle Eastern children are far more likely to be lonely or suffering from social or economic difficulties.
They are more likely to be less proficient in English, which leads to difficulties in making friends with children from other cultures and which also contributes to problems in their education. Although they are generally nourished by their spiritual and religious communities, in all other areas these children report social and emotional difficulties and are also more likely to report facing prejudice and discrimination. Healthcare proved problematic; many parents and children worry that they are subjected to discrimination whilst using services, or do not have enough information to use them in the first place.
A land of opportunity
Despite the additional challenges that these particular migrant children face, the overriding feeling is one of acceptance and hope. Even children in open centres view Malta as a land of opportunity, even when some are in suboptimal housing and lack basic necessities. What children in open centres do not perceive is Malta as their home. Better living conditions in the community, more cultural sensitivity, and openness to interculturalism may help to reduce the feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
So what do Maltese children think? Again, the overall conclusions show that children are open, tolerant, and welcoming of this dramatic and quick rise in multiculturalism that has happened. However, on closer inspection, it seems that there is still a way to go before we can truly call ourselves an open and accepting society.
Relatively few Maltese children have many foreign friends, preferring to spend time with native peers. This hesitation is stronger in children who aren’t from a mixed community, whereas children in independent schools and more exposed to foreign children seem more at ease with the idea that the future might be even more multinational and intercultural. As many as one in three Maltese children also report feeling unsafe in culturally diverse communities, and worry about potential negative consequences of these changes in the future. There also appears to be particular prejudice against children from Africa and the Middle East in contrast to children from Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia.
What has become clear is that both foreign and native children could do with some reassurance. So what do Cefai and his team suggest we can work on to help everyone embrace this new culturally diverse reality?
A united future
‘[We need] to address the needs of marginalised and vulnerable children, particularly those coming from Africa and the Middle East’, says Cefai. There’s also a lot both populations could learn from each other; caring for their environment, sharing cultures, or even adopting healthier lifestyles. By encouraging more open and judgement-free spaces to play, learn, and share, we’ll take away the ‘us’ and ‘them’ ideology from a young age and replace it with one of acceptance, curiosity, and openness to new ideas. This will help prevent the dangerous spiral of segregation and ghettoisation, seen all over Europe.
Cefai suggests a space for more positive role models for those migrant children thrown into a foreign culture that doesn’t seem to have space for them. Having teachers, healthcare workers, or even political representatives who have similar backgrounds will foster this inclusive nature, showing that everyone has a voice when it comes to working together to make this country a home for all.
There’s work to be done with Maltese children. ‘Whilst it is encouraging that the majority hold positive attitudes towards interculturalism, it is worrying that as they grow older children’s attitudes tend to become less positive,’ says Cefai. ‘It’s our responsibility to ensure that educators, community leaders, and parents of Maltese children are part of a national initiative to embrace interculturalism.’
Although overall a positive study, Cefai and team have shown we still have a way to go until every child in Malta feels safe, happy, and at home. And in this ever-changing and diverse environment, Malta has real potential to be an example to its neighbours on how a successful multicultural society can work on every level. These children are our future.
Over the last decade, workaholics have been glorified as the epitome of success. Problem behaviour is increasingly framed as ‘interesting’ and ‘quirky’ by certain media. But as mental health and well-being capture public attention, Cassi Camilleri speaks to Prof. Carmel Cefai about his efforts to promote social and emotional learning for children and young people—skills for a lifetime.
Life is life, they say. Trial and error. You live and learn.
But how many times have you been frustrated with yourself because you ‘never learn’ from your mistakes?
How many times have you found yourself in a rough spot because deadlines are a dime a dozen and your to-do list is insurmountable? Your phone is ringing off the hook. All the people you have been ignoring are sending angry emails. You have not slept properly in days. All the while, you continue to dig your heels in, creating more issues with the people around you because you are so overwhelmed you cannot communicate like a decent human being. You are 40. Still think learning from experience is the only way you can go about this?
Human beings love patterns, routines. We love repeating what works. We also tend to repeat what doesn’t though, because change is hard. But solutions exist. At the University of Malta (UM), Prof. Carmel Cefai (Faculty for Social Wellbeing), is hard at work pushing for social and emotional education (SEE) to be promoted and strengthened at all levels in Malta and Gozo.
His appreciation for the importance of relationships and addressing students’ emotional needs in learning started over 40 years ago when Cefai was working as a primary school teacher. ‘Getting to know the students individually, what they like, what makes them tick, providing individual attention according to their needs, was an important part of the teaching process. When I was teaching at Qormi, on Monday mornings my students and I would talk about horse racing—which horse won which race that weekend? I learnt many of the horses’ names even if I wasn’t that interested in horse racing. But then during the week we ended up using horses as examples during class. It was a good and easy way to engage students.’
Cefai agrees that while overprotecting young people is counterproductive, students should have the skills to make informed choices, avoid taking too many unsubstantiated risks, and make some but not too many mistakes. ‘We do not need to experience highly stressful, painful, or traumatic experiences to learn or grow. The process of growth does not require that we become dependent on alcohol or drugs, engage in criminal behaviour, contemplate suicide or struggle with depression.’ Playing devil’s advocate, I say that such experiences provide their own brand of wisdom, but Cefai quickly retorts that whatever the takeaway may be, even if it is a positive: ‘the price paid is much too high.’
Where do we begin?
The majority of western culture, including Maltese, has a very particular problem when it comes to education—the whole process is vehemently geared towards academic achievement. There is a pervasive obsession with tests and grades. So the first thing we need to do, states Cefai, is move away from that. ‘Education is not just preparation for work. It’s also about the integration of cognitive, social, and emotional processes that make us human. If we provide an education based only on academic achievement, we will be shortchanging our children and depriving them from a good, quality preparation for adulthood,’ he says—the whole aim of education.
Rather than what kind of jobs people do, or what successful businesses need, as educators we need to ask: what kind of life would this child or young person be happy living?
SEE is the process by which an individual develops social and emotional competence through curricular, relational, and contextual approaches, skills that can be used for personal, social, and academic development. The concept already has a proven track record, Cefai notes. Where successfully implemented, SEE ‘has already brought about a paradigm shift in education, […] transforming it into a more meaningful, relevant, and humane process.’
Malta has come a long way already over the last few decades. Cefai remembers when, as a primary school teacher, he had tried to support a young school child with mental health difficulties who was not only ridiculed and bullied by the other children, but also shunned by adults because of his ‘odd’ behaviour. ‘The boy clearly needed help from specialised professionals,’ notes Cefai. ‘But he also needed to attend school and learn with people his age. The alternative was to stay at home, which he inevitably did because he was often absent.’ Thankfully, things worked out in the end. ‘With the help of the head of school and some professionals, we managed to make some inroads and his behaviour started to improve. But I remember back then struggling with lack of professionals, fragmented services, and rampant stigmatisation.’
The situation has continued to improve since then. Cefai promptly lists the good practices which are already in place. ‘We have Personal, Social, and Careers Education which has been in schools for years now. There have been various national initiatives promoting students’ well-being, all working to prevent school bullying and violence, early school leaving and absenteeism, as well as to promote inclusion in all shapes and forms. Many colleges and schools have also been engaged in various initiatives to promote social and emotional learning, such as Circle Time, Restorative Justice and Resilience building.’
Not only that, but Cefai himself has worked with colleagues at the UM to found the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health at the University, as well as with European counterparts to set up the European Network for Social and Emotional Competence. ‘Our centre has been quite active over the years in providing training for school teachers in these areas, particularly in resilience development. We are also presently working with the Ministry on SEE training of practising staff in the early years,’ he adds. But there is still much more to be done…
Children’s development can be badly affected if their social and emotional well-being is not adequately addressed, says Cefai. This gap in emotional learning allows for educational systems to be driven primarily by market economy needs. Rather than what kind of jobs people do, or what successful businesses need, as educators we need to ask: what kind of life would this child or young person be happy living? The market-driven approach is focused on performance, individualism and competition, with little time and space for collaboration, sharing, compassion, and solidarity. Sadly, this situation is seen all too often.
So, how do we fix this? How do we make SEE a priority? Cefai immediately runs off a list of to-do’s. ‘We need to give social and emotional education more space and time in our schools. We need to invest more in teachers, giving them better training, and supporting them in taking care of their own health and well-being,’ Cefai emphasises. ‘Only when teachers take care of themselves and their well-being can they really create healthy, caring classroom environments where people build healthy relationships. It’s only then that they can respond effectively to students’ needs and become good role models.’ We also need to put more effort into the early years, when the building blocks of mental health and well-being are laid. We need to encourage schools to take a more holistic approach, to give students a stronger voice, to encourage parents to take a more active, participative role in their children’s education.
Of course this is not all achieved at the snap of our fingers. Resistance is to be expected, nods Cefai. ‘In order for SEE to work, there needs to be good quality planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. We know of state-of-the-art programmes which failed to make an impact as they were not implemented well, such as the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) in the UK which was eventually withdrawn because of lack of effect.’ Looking into reports about SEAL, ‘a superficial approach to implementation (‘box ticking’)’ was one of the main reasons the program failed.
Cefai also says that we need to be careful at all stages to avoid hijacking agendas. ‘Social and emotional learning should always be centred on children and young people’s needs. Their own and others’ well-being. We need to ensure that SEE retains focus on the people it is meant to help, recognising individual differences, while avoiding labelling and pathologising children and young people. SEE is about mental health promotion and well-being and prevention, rather than on deficiencies, deficits, and illness. Another issue is not to let SEE be taken over by the neo-liberal ’business model’ to fuel the market and global economy, where social and emotional skills are simply used to leverage productivity.’ Despite all this, the case for SEE remains tremendously strong.
There are no losers here
A success story in SEE implementation is a success story for everyone. Reams of evidence through studies can be found touting SEE’s praises. The approach enhances prosocial behaviour and mental health and well-being. It enhances academic achievement and prevents problem behaviours such as delinquency, anxiety, and depression. Such social issues cost taxpayers money to handle, mitigate, and fix. So much so, that the costs involved in setting up SEE are guaranteed to be not only returned, but exceeded. Some studies report that for every €1 invested, €11 will be returned to the economy in various shapes and forms.
‘I have been involved in various SEE and resilience projects in schools both in Malta and abroad,’ says Cefai. ‘I have always been very encouraged by the interest, enthusiasm, and collaboration of students, school staff, and parents. Staff and parents have been resistant at times, thinking it will take precious time from academic learning, until they realise that our approach actually enhances it. They may think that SEE is about mental illness, until they they realise that is about health and well-being and learning all rolled into one. Children really like to learn in this way, finding it enjoyable, meaningful, and useful, while teachers reap the satisfaction of seeing their students excel, improving their own lives through their contribution.’
So much of our lives are determined by our beliefs and perceptions. Learning how to process events and information in an effective way can make all the difference in how sequences of events unravel. That violent knee-jerk reaction, that long-standing bitter belief about ‘how the world works’; in difficult times, these thoughts can lead anyone down a long, dark path that’s very difficult to come back from. Social and emotional education that teaches young ones to listen to themselves and respect their feelings, as well as those of others, could begin to change that.
In a world where we are bombarded by stimuli every waking moment, it is not hard to imagine that we need to take the time to look inward and listen—our children depend on it.
Prof. Cefai has recently published three major publications in this area: An EU commissioned report on the integration of social and emotional education in the curriculum, an edited book on the promotion of mental health in schools and another edited book on the child and adolescent well-being and prevention of school violence.
Cefai, Carmel, and Paul Cooper. Mental Health Promotion in Schools: Cross-Cultural Narratives and Perspectives. Sense Publishers, 2017.
Cefai, C. et al (2018) Strengthening Social and Emotional Education across the Curriculum in the EU.Review of the international evidence. Luxembourg: Office of the European Commission.
Author: Cassi Camilleri
Life is hard sometimes. Juggling the demands of work with family while remaining healthy and sane can be tough. Done successfully, that lifestyle can look like a carefully choreographed dance. Add a bout of the flu to the mix though, and the dance gets thrown off. Now you find yourself strewn on the dance floor, with hurdles coming your way.
So far, mothers in our societies have carried the lion’s share of caring responsibilities and bear the Motherhood Penalty, affecting their earnings and career progression, amongst many other things. The International Labour Organisation claims that closing the gender gap in caring responsibilities between women and men is a priority for social development in the 21st Century.
The European Union (EU) is proposing a series of measures which aims to do exactly that. The first tackles paternity leave. At the time of writing, men in Malta are allowed at most two days off from work when they become parents. Under the new scheme, fathers will be able to take at least 10 working days of paid paternity leave around the birth of their child. When it comes to parental leave, a non-transferable quota of four months will be reserved for each parent to take, up until the child is 12 years old. It should be noted that 90% of fathers across the EU do not make use of parental leave at present. Finally, there is caring leave for workers who care for seriously ill or dependent relatives. These people will be entitled to five additional days of paid leave.
Whilst these three initiatives make sense, when analysed through the gender lens, the reality is that when people make use of these measures, they will not be compensated in full, but at the replacement rate of compulsory sick pay level. This immediately sets off the alarm bells.
Taking parental leave could mean a reduction of around 80% in income. Are Maltese parents, especially fathers, willing to accept such a drastic pay cut with every new child that arrives, along with a spike in costs? The result will be that fathers are likely to shun this additional leave, while mothers may be more prone to take the extra leave at the reduced pay rate. This will simply reinforce gender roles and gender stereotypes.
The aspect of this law that equates parental and caring leave to sick leave has to be removed. Parents manoeuvring through the fast lane of life and trying to care for their children by taking paternity, parental, or caring leave are not sick, so why pay them as such? Why impose a parental penalty on parents who are bringing up the next generation of citizens? The EU needs to do some serious rethinking if it really wants to contribute to the most significant social development of the 21st century.
Author: Dr Anna Borg
While speech development starts early in life, the course of acquiring and processing language in a bilingual country like Malta is challenging. Engineers and language experts at the University of Malta have teamed up to build a toy that will help children overcome that hurdle. Words by Emanuel Balzan.
Toys and play are critical in children’s lives. It is through play that children learn how to interact with their environment and other people while developing their cognitive, speech, language, and physical skills.
The way children play reveals many things including whether or not they are hitting particular development milestones. Play is also used by professionals who intervene when those skills are not acquired. Speech and language pathologists (SLP) use toys to tailor tasks based on their objectives for the child, determined following their assessment. For this reason, toys are vital tools.
With technology moving at the rate it is, electronic components are easier and cheaper to access. As a result, a lot of smart, educational toys are now available on the market. However, Dr Ing. Philip Farrugia (Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, UM) honed in on a gap in the market—a smart toy that supports English and Maltese.
To make this happen, Farrugia recruited a team of researchers from the university. Engineers Prof. Simon Fabri and Dr Owen Casha joined the effort. Researchers Prof. Helen Grech and Dr Daniela Gatt brought their expertise in speech and language acquisition and disorders. The team was finally complete when game development company Flying Squirrel Games stepped into the picture.
Getting down to business
The SPEECHIE project is divided into three stages. During the first phase, we sought to understand the process of speech and language acquisition, assessment, and therapy. We involved users through workshops that allowed us to observe children’s play and their toy preferences. We also conducted focus groups with parents to identify what they most wanted from toys. During these sessions, one parent noted how ‘there are not any [educational] toys in Maltese our little ones can play and interact with.’ Others agreed with this observation. Parents also raised concerns about children’s attraction to tablets and smartphones, noting how they interfered with social interaction. On the tail end of this discussion, one parent quickly added that ‘the toy must have something to make it feel like a toy and not a gadget.’
With further questioning, we also came to realise that different parents have different criteria when deciding to buy a toy. One parent told us that before buying a toy for her daughter, she would ‘try to see for how long she will play with it and what the toy will give her in return.’ Another parent, concerned about toys’ safety, checks for the CE mark (Conformité Européene) prior to purchasing the toy, saying that he associates the mark with better quality. However, he also confessed that ‘in the hands of children, nothing remains of quality. Give them something which is unbreakable and they will manage to break it in one way or another.’
Since our toy is intended for use in speech therapy, we went ahead and organised more focus groups with SLPs. Outlining the role of toys in their clinics, SLPs said ‘[they] are normally used as a reward. If you know that this child likes blocks, then you use them to motivate the child.’ Toys are also used as part of the language tasks SLPs give. ‘We use objects to put a grammatical structure in a sentence. Many times you find something that represents a noun, a verb, an object and then put them together’ to model the appropriate sentence construction. This prolific use of toys, however, brings with it a very practical problem. One SLP explained how challenging things can get on a day-to-day basis due to the lack of multipurpose toys. ‘We are always carrying toys… we are always carrying things around with us. Even our cars… it is like I have ten kids,’ she said.
To address this issue, SLPs emphasised how useful it would be to have a flexible toy with multiple functions. One that does not bore children and which they can use to target different speech and language therapy goals. They also drew our attention to a prevalent but damaging mentality that they are trying to address. ‘Unfortunately, the majority of Maltese parents have a mentality that the more money they spend and the more therapy sessions for their children, the sooner the problem is alleviated, but in reality this is not true. The work needs to continue at home on a daily basis. It is not solely our responsibility,’ the SLP said. Much like when we practice daily to learn to play an instrument, speech and language therapy works the same way.
Sharon Borg, an experienced occupational therapist from the government’s Access to Communication and Technology Unit, said that the toy we had in mind could provide a simple way for parents to engage with their children and work at home on related exercises. Borg’s colleague, Ms May Agius, also noted the need for the toy to offer ‘surprises’, saying that ‘anticipation and elements of surprise draw kids and keep them engaged.’
Here we have only touched the surface of all the ideas brought forth. However, by considering the children’s, therapists’, and parents’ needs early in the engineering design process, we should be able to reduce the number of design iterations we have in future.
Design is key. Based on the feedback from the focus groups, we have now started working on the hardware and the software. But the journey is not straightforward. One issue we needed to deal with was the lack of compatibility between the 3D modelling software Flying Squirrel Games used and the technology used by the UM. From an academic point of view, because of the innovative nature of the toy we are making, we needed flexibility, so we modified Flying Squirrel’s virtual model to add different mechanisms which involve moving parts. These alterations now allow us to create support to fix electronic components within the device and ensure that no moving part is impeded by another part. As a result, assembly is much easier.
We have also made the decision to build SPEECHIE software using modular blocks. This will enable us to switch parts and functions around so we can widen the idea of who might enjoy our product. The toy will not only be of use to children with speech and language impairments, but also to others. This approach was inspired by a meeting with behavioural economist Dr Marie Briguglio who warned us that labelling the toy could be stigmatising. She explained that it should not become ‘an isolated toy which kind of becomes a label: because I have this toy, that means I have speech impairment.’
Despite the aversion some parents felt towards technological devices, as said during focus groups, Borg also encouraged us not to shy away from using them. She said children with autism responded very well to technology, and therapists will make the best choice for the child to improve their skills. To hit a sweet spot in between these views, we are incorporating functions that will allow for a kinesthetic learning experience that involves physical activities rather than passive consumption of instructions. We want to mix different modes of play to encourage effective learning. We do not want kids to sit and watch their toy, but to move around, dance, and sing with other children.
With all of these choices under our belt, we now have a working prototype. But the SPEECHIE toy is not yet complete. In fact, the coming months will see us working on the mechanisms and the interfacing of electronics.
Towards the end of the year, we will start putting the toy into preschoolers’ hands to determine its effectiveness and efficiency in regard to speech and language therapy. To do this, we will compare the progress of children who use SPEECHIE with those who only use traditional SLP methods.
What we hope is that this toy will encourage parent-and-child interaction through play. We want to enable more frequent use of both Maltese and English and allow children to be safely exposed to technology and to a fantastic learning experience—all while having a ball.
Note: We are excited to share these insights about SPEECHIE with the public, and if you would be interested in joining on this journey by participating in the evaluations, get in touch here: email@example.com
Author: Emanuel Balzan
Language is at the core of what makes us human. From birth, we interact through language, making our way through gurgling and babbling to words, and, eventually, telling (tall) stories. It is important to nurture this linguistic development as early as possible, and in Malta, this involves exposure and sensitivity to the forms and dialects of at least two languages: Maltese and English.
Such growth can be nurtured by setting a good example so that children have a solid language basis to build upon. Here, it all boils down to one key point: interaction. Language is a two-way process, so for a child to truly benefit, they need to interact with others from birth—TV cartoons just do not cut it.
At the earliest stages, language is all about sounds and bonds, not about learning letters or reciting a poem. However, even then a child sensitive to differences and variation in language. Children know that home language is different from what they hear outside in the wider community. For Maltese children, it is useless to place early focus on lamenting the distinction between ‘Trid ice cream?’ instead of ‘Trid ġelat?’ as both are equally well understood in Malta. What is more important is that a child has enough exposure to become sensitive to which version or dialect to use in which context. In English, we have no problem singing the nursery rhyme ‘Horsey, horsey don’t you stop…’ despite knowing that the established word is of course ‘horse’ because experience shows us that children happily grow out of their ‘baby’ language. The same is true of the different forms of languages and dialects typical in a multilingual society. As we grow older, we can become sensitive to which forms of a dialect or language are best understood in the home, amongst friends, or at work.
Apart from parents, children spend most of their me in school. If schooling is meant to be about encouraging children to reach their full potential, then this should also hold true linguistically. Just as a sporty or musical child is identified and encouraged to work on their natural talent, a child whose linguistic skill is recognisable should get the same treatment. That talent should be nurtured—they might be the country’s best lawyer in a few years’ time.
Equally, it is important to leave no child behind. A truly holistic education recognises that physical activity is vital, perhaps even more so, for the less sporty child. The same applies in languages. We must ensure that every child has the opportunity to express themselves both in speech and writing, even if they seem to struggle. After all, we don’t teach an unsteady runner how to run by making them sit and watch while we run a race for them. Similarly, children learn how to speak and write by practising the languages, not listening to (lengthy) explanations about how to use a language.
This is what nurturing skills is all about. If we want to raise con dent, knowledgeable youngsters, we must allow them to constantly practise ways to get their message across. In Malta’s rich linguistic environment, this means nurturing all our dialects and forms of language in whatever shape or form available to us. It is only through this process that we can then shape rich, meaningful forms of communication amongst ourselves, and the wider world.
Hardships do not befall us all in equal measure. Cassi Camilleri talks to Prof. Carmel Cefai about his work at the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health and the dedicated curriculum that seeks to impart the skill of resilience to those who need it most.Continue reading