Language learning and social cohesion in a multicultural classroom with vulnerable learners

This piece seeks to answer questions related to the correlation between language learning and social cohesion in the context of a multicultural/multilingual classroom with more focus on refugee and recent migrant learners.

Mohammed Ateek

Creating language classrooms as safe spaces and the learning approaches/activities to do so are also discussed.

1. Language learning and social cohesion

Moving to a new country, forcibly or voluntarily, is a life-changing experience that comes with different challenges from integration to isolation. Each learner’s ability to interact and integrate is different though most face the challenge of making a new home for themselves and their families in unfamiliar surroundings. Learning the host language is central to this new beginning and goes hand in hand with adapting to a new culture. This is because language learning is primarily a social activity and must be accompanied with different levels of support from others in the host community, the refugee community, and at the policy level.

Probably, in every discussion on social cohesion, the importance of education is raised as one of its most significant boosters. In the same vein, language is essential for education; and language does not only serve as a means of communication, it reveals affiliations to a certain group and could, therefore, work to unite or divide groups (Coleman, 2015). Language learning could promote social and life-skills that are necessary for building relationships, which are essential for many learners to integrate in the new community/ country (UNCHR, 2018). However, there is a need for a language policy that implicitly promotes ethnic harmony and social cohesion, through using activities and methodologies that serve this purpose. Moreover, the bigger picture for the role of language in building life-skills and resilience comes through its necessity for migrant students to engage in everyday-life activities (hospitals, markets, business, access to employment, communication with the host community and across different community groups, access to education, etc.).

2. Language classes as safe spaces

Language could play an essential part here through using teaching methodologies that promote communication, preferably in mixed classes where migrant, refugee and the host community learners work together, but even in only-refugee classes, the need for such methodologies, along with boosting learner autonomy is important.

Refugees and newly-arrived migrants are vulnerable people in the host countries due to many reasons (e.g., lack of knowledge about the country and its system, lack of language, lack of relationships, hostility against refugees and looking down at them in some cases, etc.). This is also applied among the refugees themselves (refugees from cities vs. refugees from rural areas, different ethnicity groups, etc.). Therefore, building both social cohesion and social trust among these groups could come through putting all these categories in one physical/identity space, with less division; language classes could serve as safe, shared spaces where the belonging to a group (classes membership) could lessen these divisions between the host community learners and other migrant learners. This can only be achieved through a carefully-designed language policy/learning approach.

Beyond providing the content for language learning, classrooms play a significant part in helping learners to develop relationships with other learners who are experiencing similar life-changing experiences. In this sense, learning a language together fosters integration as it enables individuals and communities to engage in meaningful dialogue. This is because successful integration occurs on an emotional as well as a functional level. Community settings as well as formal classrooms can be developed as spaces for social small talk as well as providing learners with opportunities to learn through engagement with host communities.

Language classes could be used as safe spaces through appreciating learners’ culture (s) and home language, using more communication, empowering learners especially the vulnerable and promoting learner autonomy. This could be done through building students' self-confidence, designing communicative activities among students who come from different backgrounds, telling stories from different cultures and enhancing the feeling of appreciation of these cultures.

3. Promoting learning in multilingual classrooms

Second or foreign language learning classes are often multicultural classes nowadays, especially with the rise of movement and mobility around the world. Many EFL classes include students who come from different cultural backgrounds and speak different languages. Below is a list of some ideas and activities so teachers could use effectively in such teaching environments:

  • Often students coming from different backgrounds lack communication among themselves especially at the beginning. Using the communicative approach not only enhances communication but also creates a common ground and a sense of class community among learners. However, learners need topics that trigger their interest for communication.
  • One way to create communication is through engaging learners in a meaningful and purposeful talk, where they share ideas, experiences and feelings. One example for this activity could be through grouping students and assigning tasks to each one so that the whole task won’t be complete has any of the students not participated (e.g., jigsaw). Another way could be through establishing positive relationships between students through pairing them and giving tasks of support to each other. This interaction has shown to develop attitudes and behaviours such as sharing, helping and respecting other people’s perspectives (Coelho, 2012). Working collaboratively on learning tasks is rather important in a multicultural class where students of diverse backgrounds learn how to create a dialogue, solve a problem together and value each other’s cultures. This, in turn, strengthens social cohesion in classrooms and beyond.
  • As a trigger of communication, extensive reading, which is reading lots of easy materials for pleasure, could be used as a part of an existing course or as an extra-curricular activity (Day and Bamford, 1998). The way to do so could be through reading easy materials with a wide range of different topics that are culturally-loaded and related to the learners’ culture (s). This could provoke discussion in the classroom and students get to know and appreciate each other’s cultures. A lot of EFL materials on extensive reading are available now (e.g., graded readers) with different levels. However, in a low-resource environment, it might be difficult to get such materials available because of the cost. Jacobs (2014) lists 16 ideas for finding ER materials if the school budget is insufficient (e.g., online materials, students becoming key-pals, teachers and students are writers of extensive reading materials).
  • L1 is an essential component of a learner’s identity and a source of pride and cultural value. Therefore, making space for home languages in multicultural classrooms is important (Coelho, 2012). Different studies show that L1 is a foundation for L2 learning and a tool for learning when there is a lack of L2 competence. Knowing more than one language may enhance cognitive abilities to learn an L2. As an icebreaking activity, teachers could ask students to do a pair activity where As ask Bs about their names, how they are pronounced and what they mean in their language. Students, then, tell the class about their peers’ names. Another activity could be writing sentences or sayings in different languages on board or screen. The teacher picks up a theme (e.g., importance of time, work, etc.) and asks students to provide sayings in their own language. Students share these sayings/proverbs in their language with the class. There are many examples of such activities that teachers could find and use in different teachers’ resources. Teachers are also encouraged to design their own activities based on their students’ interests and levels.

Teacher’s role

It is the teachers’ biggest job to help students see diversity as something interesting but normal. If teachers are to raise students’ awareness and celebrate their diversity, they should educate themselves about their students’ cultures and backgrounds. Teachers should ensure that their classes are safe spaces rather than intimidating ones. They should also push to use curriculum that includes diversity and is ‘global’, with being careful not to use books that promote stereotypes. Contacting with each student and giving them space and time to participate is also important. However, teachers should be aware that some students or newly-arrived might not feel confident or prepared, other students might suffer from trauma if they come from conflict-zone countries, and calling them to speak could result in a counterproductive effect.


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:

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