Refugees Need Language - How Can Volunteers Give Support?

By Krumm, Hans-Jürgen | European Journal of Language Policy, April 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Refugees Need Language - How Can Volunteers Give Support?


Krumm, Hans-Jürgen, European Journal of Language Policy


[The Editor is grateful to the Council of Europe for granting permission to reproduce this text. Its author, em. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Krumm, is a member of the coordination group of the Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants (LIAM) programme. The following notes of guidance are available in English, French, German and Greek, and have already been successfully trialled with volunteers. The Council of Europe has indicated that is working on an ambitious toolkit in six languages to assist refugees and volunteers in offering language support to refugees, planned for autumn 2017. Further information can be found on the Council's websites.]1

Refugees need language: those who are passing through are mainly interested in the language of their country of destination, while those who want to stay in a country and apply for asylum would be very glad for any opportunity to learn its national language. However, it takes a long time until they live in an environment in which systematic learning of the language is possible or until they have access to proper language courses. This is where the many volunteer refugee helpers and NGOs who also want to assist refugees with language learning have a part to play.

There are, of course, trained language teachers for language teaching for refugees. However, that does not always work satisfactorily, in part because what is needed is not (yet) ordinary language courses but an initial introduction to the national language or ad hoc language support, and partly because some of the NGOs do not have corresponding resources for this purpose. This is where the volunteers come into play again.

What is needed for this task is not a "light" version of teaching methodology, as if the volunteers were expected exactly to imitate language courses (with grammar teaching, skills training, differentiation and cross-language comparison), for which they have not been trained. That would place the volunteers under pressure, along the lines, "You are not teachers, you are not getting teacher training, but please do what teachers do".

What volunteers need is a focus on the specific circumstances.

Laypersons help to introduce refugees to the national language - what sensible contribution can they make here without being trained teachers?

Set out below are some basic points concerning what could be conveyed to the refugee helpers so as to help them find their own role in work with refugees:

1. As you are not trained language teachers, do not try not to copy them - focus on what YOU can do. It is a great advantage NOT BEING A TEACHER when offering refugees support with language:

- You do not have to stick to a course programme or aim for a particular level or a particular amount of textbook teaching - the only concern is the participants.

- You do not have to teach grammar because the aim is not for the refugees to learn the national language correctly to exam level, but for them to be given initial access to it and acquire a language of survival suited to their situation. Grammar may be helpful at times, but it is not the main purpose of the exercise. Some refugees, especially highly educated ones, may ask sophisticated questions about grammar.

- You should stress that you are not a teacher and possibly ask for time to consult somebody else or look something up.

- You do not have to correct mistakes - except by keeping on displaying "correctness" yourself as a language model. Refugees have too much experience of doing things "wrong"; when receiving language assistance from volunteers, they should be made to feel that all efforts, including mistakes, are "right".

2. The country's national language is important to refugees, but is definitely not their main problem or goal - do not put them under too much pressure in this respect. Stick to "easy" voluntary learning.

- Refugees have many concerns and fears about the whereabouts of their families, how they are going to survive the next few days and nights and in many cases weeks, getting enough to eat, and the general insecurity of their lives, etc. …

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