The impact of language proficiency on refugees

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Language skills are essential for individuals and communities to connect with one another. Indeed, having the ability to communicate opens up opportunities to individuals in the social and working environment, it helps people achieve independence, and it enables people to engage with one another in society. For refugees, language proficiency is even more crucial as it is central to successfully settling and thriving within a new community.

A report by the British Council last year revealed that 65 million people are forcibly displaced in the world. The EU’s external border force Frontext estimated that more than 1.8 million crossed the European border in 2015 alone, while an estimated 117,234 refugees live in the UK.  

On June 20th, the globe will rally to celebrate World Refugee Day which aims to recognise the challenges refugees face, promoting the need for every refugee child to have access to an education and every adult to be given the chance to work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to society. In the UK, Refugee Week will celebrate the contribution of refugees and encourage a better understanding between communities.

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What nations need to do to successfully meet the needs of refugees and the communities in which they live is an ongoing topic of discussion on the political agenda. There are many differing views on refugee entry criteria; that debate will undoubtedly go on but what is clear is that addressing language barriers helps individuals and communities relate to and learn from one another.

Helping to enable language proficiency is critical to creating clear communication between refugees and their new communities; what’s also important is building cross-community cultural awareness.

Accelerated language learning expedites engagement

Language proficiency is an intrinsic skill that provides individuals with a sense of belonging, stability and support. For refugees, being able to interact with other people in their new environment is hugely important – not just for themselves by enabling them to explore new opportunities, but also to the wider community who can often benefit from the individual’s skills and contributions.

Without adequate provision for language teaching and learning, the longer-term options for people forced to flee from violence and instability are much more limited. From highly respected scholars to hard-working labourers, each refugee has something to offer and giving them a voice can lead to a stronger, more inclusive society. 

One of the biggest problems, however, is that with high volumes of migration, nations struggle to provide effective access to language education. Technology can provide an excellent way of meeting this communication need; helping individuals quickly build language ability. Everyday conversational skills can be developed through programmes that provide instant pronunciation feedback and opportunities for speaking practice.

What’s more, programmes can adapt according to the current skills level of the learner; making an assessment at the start to determine the appropriate course route each individual should take to achieve their learning goals. The mobile nature of technology learning also supports regular, bite-sized tuition that can fit around other commitments.

The rise of digitisation also plays a part. Language learning delivered digitally engages learners through a high level of interactivity and simulations of everyday interactions. This means information can be accessed and tailored to the needs of each individual learner by, for example, varying the pace of delivery according to ability and rate of progress.

This, together with the ability to adjust content delivery and the level of repetition to reinforce learning, makes technology-based language learning a flexible tool for meeting individual needs.

Gaining Access

It’s important that when refugees enter the UK, they have access to these digital language tools. Refugee Centres, for example, are key. Focusing on assimilation and employment, they provide language training programmes that include both classroom instruction and a computer-based learning lab. These programmes aim to encourage learners to participate, providing on-going support and offering incentives in the form of help with job searches and cash assistance.

Schools are also being tasked with the responsibility of teaching languages to immigrant students, however, while they have previously needed to support small groups of students, they are now faced with managing a large number of native languages. Such expanding and diverse needs are, unsurprisingly, putting a strain on school systems, where teaching and learning struggles are weighted with hundreds of students who need to learn the new target language.

Technology-based language learning enables school programmes to teach multiple languages and increase proficiency levels within the same classroom, with instruction tailored to the needs of each individual student. Learners can quickly develop strong literacy skills, helping to build confidence and speed up engagement in classroom instruction.

As nations continue to grapple with the challenge of supporting refugees and helping them realise their full potential within their new communities, the importance of effective, scalable language tuition must be recognised.

World Refugee Day and its associated programmes at national level carry the message that refugees need the opportunity to learn new skills and to contribute to their communities. This is a message that must be embodied through an acknowledgement of the important role language learning plays in meeting these needs. By equipping refugees with a voice to communicate across language barriers, individuals and communities as a whole can profit.

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