VALLETTA, Oct. 2 (Xinhua) -- A Chinese language and culture program started in Maltese state middle schools on Monday, with the first lessons taking place at St. Margaret College Middle School.
The state middle school is the first to offer Chinese, with a further four schools to be added in the next scholastic year.
Maltese students must learn both Maltese and English -- the country's official languages -- but are also encouraged to learn a third language, explained Gaetano Bugeja, director of the Learning and Assessment Programs directorate at Malta's Ministry for Education.
Speaking to Xinhua, Bugeja said students had the option of learning Spanish, French, Italian, German, Arabic or Russian.
"Since Malta's contact with China is increasing, its time we taught Chinese in state schools," said Bugeja.
After setting up a curriculum, authorities eventually partnered up with the Confucius Institute -- an international educational organization based at the University of Malta -- which offered to arrange for a teacher to be sent over from China.
With the program about to start its first year, Bugeja said so far only two students had chosen to learn the language, but he insisted that the government intended to see more students with time, as well as to have enough local teachers for it not to depend on foreign ones. "For now, we need help and support from China but in future, we hope to be self-sufficient."
In addition to teaching the language, Bugeja said that within five years Malta will also be offering the subject at O level -- public exams students must sit for at the age of 16 which are needed to get into a sixth form college, from where they eventually progress to university.
The national Chinese syllabus was designed by Salvatore Giuffre, from the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Malta.
Giuffre said he was expecting the students in state schools to able to recognize up to 700 characters, and be able to write around 650 characters with five years' studying. This, he said, was proficiency close to level three of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) -- the Chinese Standard Exam, which has a total of six levels.