How language affects refugees’ abilities to access education, training and employment

The importance of language in schools, training centres and workplaces cannot be underestimated in refugee communities, especially given that so often they find themselves economically, socially and politically marginalised.

Chris Sowton

The importance of language in schools, training centres and workplaces cannot be underestimated in refugee communities, especially given that so often they find themselves economically, socially and politically marginalised. Were refugees able to participate fully in these institutions in host countries, there would be a dividend which would be to the advantage of both refugee and host communities alike. A key mechanism for yielding this latent value is multilingualism and the transformative power of language.

The value of multilingualism

A fundamental issue to consider before even considering how language should be taught, or which language should be learnt, is the language in which teaching takes place – the medium of instruction. As Carole Benson argues, multilingualism has to be valued more within schools and training centres; it should be seen as an opportunity rather than a hinderance. If it is not, then there is the risk that an individual’s lack of knowledge of a particular language becomes a barrier to accessing education, as well as the detrimental effect it can have on the quality of their education. Recent UNHCR data shows that refugee children are already hugely disadvantaged compared to children in non-refugee contexts. At the primary level, only 61% of refugee children of primary school age go to school (against a global average of 91%), at secondary level the figures are 23% vs 84%, whilst at the tertiary level the data are even more stark: 1% vs 36%. Wherever and however possible, these gaps need to be reduced.

Approaches to teaching

One way to try and remedy these dreadful data is to support educators in changing the prevailing teacher-centred, grammar-based approach into one which prioritises the communicative and functional aspects of language. Pedagogies and curricula which can build expertise in multiple languages without detriment to one or the other must be developed. Indeed, there should be a tolerance of – or even encouragement for – strategies such as L2 use in the classroom and translanguaging / code-switching practices. Where possible, as argued in a recent position paper by the British Council, the drift towards English as a Medium of Instruction should be resisted until the home language has been secured, and any transition to English (or another international language) should be gradual and managed.

Learner training

Considering the specific locus of the refugee context, another important point to note is the many educational interruptions faced by refugee children, and the effect which this has on their ability to learn. Given this, support in ‘learning how to learn’, i.e. reflexive practices by which they can acquire the metacognitive skills to be effective learners, would add greatly to their educational experience and outcomes. The benefits this could have with regards to language acquisition are clear – for example discussing with them techniques and strategies for recording new language or for practising important literacy skills.

The use of technology

Considering the continual upward trend in the number of refugees worldwide – and consequently the number requiring education – technology is often perceived, or put forward, as a silver bullet to provide a quick and effective solution to these challenges. Whilst technology certainly presents significant opportunities for language learning, and for improving educational, training and employment outcomes, the pre-existing digital divide risks exacerbating social and economic cleavages. Programmes which use technology to deliver training programmes should ensure that those on the deficit side of the digital divide have equity of access. The choice of language used to deliver online support will also have a considerable impact in this regard.

The workplace

Turning towards the workplace, and specifically those vocational courses which prepare young people for the world of work, there has to be more consideration given to what happens when young people complete or graduate from these courses. What happens next? At present there is often no clear pathway about how they can actually use their new knowledge and skills to participate in meaningful employment. In such situations, they may become frustrated, which may potential have a negative impact on pre-existing trauma. On this issue, what they are and are not able to do will obviously be heavily influenced by the employment landscape, and what they are and are not permitted to do by host governments.

Given this, it is important to ensure that policymakers see education-training-employment as a continuum, ensuring that there are clear linkages within the different stages of this continuum. This is not to say that education should be perceived solely in human capital terms, but these potential work pathways must be considered in planning. The importance of work for refugees cannot be underestimated, since it fulfils a wide range of fundamental human needs, for example providing a sense of purpose, positive reinforcement, status, intrinsic reinforcement, social support, traction, a sense of identify and a place within the social hierarchy. Where refugees are able to work, value-added skills – such as languages – will make them more employable, and can provide a boost to host country economies. This can be especially beneficial since employers in host countries may be reluctant to hire refugees because of their ‘limbo’ status. More widely, where refugees can utilise their full linguistic repertoire, they are more likely to be able to integrate more fully and effectively with the host community.

The need for context

One final point which should be made is that although some clear generalised points can be made, it is important to consider these points within the local language ecology, in particular the opportunities arising from the knowledge of a language, and the constraints emanating from a lack of this knowledge. Doing this requires not only an appreciation of the present language needs of learners, but also their potential future trajectories, which admittedly may be difficult to know given the fragility and uncertainty which pervades refugee communities.

However education programmes are implemented, open and honest dialogue between all educational stakeholders is crucial. If school principals and parents, for example, are resistant to the changes to classroom practice that teachers want to make following training and upskilling, the classroom reality is unlikely to change significantly. External actors need to work similarly, to participate in discourse which places the needs of the end user at the centre of what they do.

Background to the 5 Language for Resilience blog pieces

In 2016, as part of the response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the British Council commissioned research on the role of language in enhancing the resilience of Syrian refugees and host communities. You can read that research here. The report identified 5 interconnected ways in which language is an essential component in enhancing the resilience of individuals, communities and institutions.

This year, those 5 interconnected principles have been investigated further by a team of researchers, academics and practitioners. As an insight into their research each has written a blog piece. Read these pieces by clicking on the links below:

Seven reasons for teachers to welcome home languages in education | Kerryn Dixon, Associate Professor, School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa (published on British Council Voices)

How language affects refugees’ abilities to access education, training and employment | Chris Sowton, University of Bath, UK 

How to address the effects of trauma in the English language classroom | Professor Shirley Reynolds, Director Charlie Waller Institute, School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, UK and Beverley Costa, CEO & Clinical Director of Mothertongue and founder of the Pasalo Project

Language learning and social cohesion in a multicultural classroom with vulnerable learners | Mohammed Ateek, Research Associate, Birkbeck College University of London, UK

Developing teachers of refugees | Clare Furneaux, Teaching & Learning Dean/Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Reading, UK

If you are interested in finding out more about Language for Resilience you can:

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight