Learning the language of their new home is a priority for refugees hoping to integrate and build a new life in their host country. But should the rush to acquire a new language mean they neglect their mother tongue? While some advocate an in-at-the-deep-end approach to quickly immerse refugee children in the language and culture of the new country, others say native language teaching can and should go hand-in-hand with the acquisition of new language skills.
In Syria, the education system has collapsed in large parts of the country. Many teachers are among the refugees. Save the Children estimates that the cost of Syrian children not returning to school could be 5.4% of Syria’s future GDP, blighting the country for years to come.
Equipping refugee children with a sound education in their own language would enable them to support the recovery and rebuilding of their country once peace returns.
Studies show most refugees do return home, but the wait is often long – by some estimates an average of 17 years. For many, the education they receive as refugees, may be the only schooling they get. Aid agencies working on the ground say education in their own language can help children overcome trauma, as well as engendering a sense of purpose and identity that counter risks of alienation and isolation.
What is the best way forward? Should the education of refugee children in Europe focus entirely on learning the language and culture of their host countries to better facilitate integration? Or is a greater effort needed to promote bilingual education that enables children to maintain contacts with their mother tongues?
Germany has been in the forefront among European countries in taking in refugees from Syria and other conflict-torn countries. In Munich, more than 20,000 asylum seekers/refugees arrived in 2015. Over 50% were aged 25 or younger and 4,300 were unaccompanied minors.
The city has introduced special transition classes, Ü-Klassen, with intensive German-language teaching to prepare students for integration into the local education system. It was the birthplace of the SchlaU-Schule initiative, which has worked to ensure refugee children don’t get left behind in the German education system, and the KIKUS method aimed at making language learning fun for pre-school kids.
What do experts think about teaching refugee children in their own language? To kick-start the debate, we asked Kristina Cunningham, head of the Multilingualism Policy Sector at the European Commission.
Refugee children will need to learn the language of their new host country and all Member States give support for this as it is crucial for their education and their well-being. In Germany, refugee children generally spend up to one year in introduction classes where they receive intensive German lessons before they are gradually integrated into mainstream education. Children’s ability to learn languages is phenomenal. Meanwhile, there is growing evidence from both research and practice that the right to mother tongue tuition increases the ability to learn and master the language of instruction, as well as wider benefits for cognitive development. Mother tongue competency is also seen as an instrument to recognise diverse linguistic capital and the value of cultural heritage. Several Member States have an open attitude to multilingual schools, where mother tongues are fostered alongside the main language of instruction. However, only a minority of the countries have publicly funded provisions for mother tongue tuition. The plurality of languages to be catered for is a particular challenge in this respect.
Some would argue that educating refugee children in their native language might promote segregation. So, how can the needs of refugee children be met in a way that encourages integration into society?
Individual needs of children and not organisational models should drive the approaches for newly arrived immigrants. Both introduction classes and direct integration into mainstream education have pros and cons. Whichever system is used, there is a need to have high expectations coupled with a high level of support in order to succeed. It is important to tailor support for the individual student, recognising their ambitions and language capital, and avoiding a ‘deficit’ perspective. It is crucial to harvest that ambition as fast as possible and show the refugee student that a new successful life is possible and accessible through education. Evidence shows that a rapid introduction of refugee children into mainstream education is the single most efficient integration measure. Sweden is the first Member State to have introduced new legislation, regulating the maximum time children should stay in introduction classes and also the modalities of these classes. They should in principle be organized within normal schools, so that transition can happen gradually.
Should refugee children be educated in their own language? Is it best to speed up integration to focus on teaching newcomers the language of their host countries? Or does a bilingual approach provide better results? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!