Initial meeting on language and learning for displaced and crisis-affected children sparks honest discussion of both challenges and opportunities.
Often, refugees and internally displaced children and youth are forced to flee to countries or regions where the language of instruction is not the same as where they had previously attended school. The inability to communicate and learn effectively in the language of instruction creates significant barriers to accessing education opportunities. Language learning is often a prerequisite for successful inclusion in national education systems and for both retention and academic progression, and plays an important part in social inclusion and children being able to interact with host community peers.
Language is also tied to identity, and the transmission of home language is a key aspect of the internal resilience of a displaced community.
“Everyone agrees on the importance of maintaining home languages, in addition to teaching the language of instruction (English, for example),” said Celia Reddick, from Harvard University’s Refugee REACH programme. “But in practice, limited resources usually lead stakeholders to default to an exclusive focus on the instruction language.”
This was a typical example of the kinds of issues identified during the hour-and-a-half meeting co-hosted by the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencies and UNHCR about how language skills affect the learning of children and youth in crisis situations – especially displaced children and youth. It is widely understood that including displaced children in the national education system of the place they find themselves living encourages better educational outcomes for those children, but there is no question that this creates a tension when the language of the students and the language of instruction are different.
“Proficiency in the language of instruction is one of the most significant barriers to inclusion in national education systems,” said Jennifer Roberts, UNHCR Senior Education Officer (Emergencies). “This must be addressed in order for the Global Refugee Forum pledges on inclusion to be met in a way that supports learning.”
And it’s not just a matter of teaching the children and youth the new language.
“Refugee children face uncertain futures,” said Sarah Dryden-Petersen, Director of Harvard’s Refugee REACH programme. “They, and we, cannot predict what languages they will need for further study, work or social engagement.”
What is more, as pointed out by Dorine Ngo Djon of Plan Cameroon, “For students who are already following their regular classes, taking extra language classes is a big imposition.”
She was supported by Moses Yonana, a Journalism and Media student who had been supported by a Plan Cameroon programme for refugee youth. He pointed out the need for more holistic support, not so much in the classroom as with navigating daily life and social activities in a new country.
Dryden-Petersen agreed: “We may find it helpful to think both in terms of structural integration, and relational integration – building connections with teachers and with communities is as important as classwork. This can often be what enables these children to develop the tools to link their past, present and future, despite the instability of their situations.”
According to Reddick, the opportunities to do so are present. “Teachers have reported that they do not receive any support for the kinds of multi-lingual classrooms they have been faced with, even though they themselves actually bring huge amounts of experience dealing with that.”
Cansu Albayrak, from UNICEF Turkey, introduced the case of Syrian refugees being integrated into the Turkish education system, reflecting on where that has gone well, and where there were challenges. She also emphasized the importance of community structures to the social integration of displaced children: “Things like community centres, continuing courses and sports programmes proved very useful. Even though these were originally designed for the Turkish population, and often for adults, these were resources that could be re-purposed to support Syrian children.” Albayrak said children need time to play. They need social activities and shared environments in which to gradually and naturally integrate.
But, where there are successes there are also lessons to be learnt.
As participants agreed on further progressing this discussion over the months ahead, it was clear that the broader implications of addressing language in learning are huge, and the benefits potentially far-reaching for both displaced learners and the communities that host them.