cities&refugees_D7Learning 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.

Curious to know more about the education of refugee children in Europe? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).


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.

K. CUNNINGHAMRefugee 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?

K. CUNNINGHAMIndividual 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!

The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsi­ble for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

129 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Matej Zaggy Zagorc

    No… It is essential for them to learn the language of the country where they live. Why complicate it, when you can get two birds with one stone?

    • avatar

      What do you mean with “they”?

    • avatar
      Imanuel d'Anjou


    • avatar
      Yannick Herve

      Not at all, I protect countries they come from.

  2. avatar
    Ildikó Éva Gelencsér

    They should be educated using bi-lingual methods. It means that the instruction should be the language of the host society with possible courses in their native language. :)

  3. avatar
    Τζινα Πολεμαρχακη

    Yes of course ,one day hopefully they will return to their origin but also to learn the language of the country they live at the present time and the lifestyle ,culture and lows of this country. You need two legs to walk ..not one !

  4. avatar
    Ivan Burrows


    Can you imagine the cost of having all subjects taught in native languages ?

    English is the EU’s language which makes all other languages redundant & it is the goal of Brussels to unite you all under one flag, one anthem, one currency & one language, the comments on this page prove this.

    • avatar
      Faddi Zsolt

      UK left the EU. Let’s see which language to choose to be the official for the EU.

    • avatar
      Rémi Martin

      Faddi, we’ll speak american, so easy! The language of the master, the banks. EU is over 60 tears and is always away from international diplomatic negotiations, it doesn’t exist, just a market! Is that the way of Europe? To shut up? We’re asking us how to speak and the others defend their interests in this time? Over 170 countries aren’t in EU, they’re living too!

    • avatar
      Παυλος Χαραλαμπους

      Actually most people i know doesn’t speak English the ” right way ” they speak a kind of “American” dialect, as a matter of fact if someone speaks to them with “correct” English accent i think they won’t understand him

    • avatar
      Rémi Martin

      This american dialect is called globbish!

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Rémi Martin
      Globbish? LOL!

      That’s like saying ‘Global French’ (an oxymoron BTW as French is not a top tier language like English, Chinese or Spanish) is called ‘Patois’.

  5. avatar
    Şeyma Doğan

    Why do people think that people won’t be able to learn the language of the country THEY LIVE IN, as in have all their social interactions in the local language, if they have their school education in their native language? For fucks sake what kind of special stupidity is that? Education in native language is a human right! (nevermind the fact that it creates jobs for the people in those native languages, therefore they won’t “steal” your jobs).

    • avatar
      Kianglek Tan

      Are Kurdish, Arabic, Greek and Armenian state-sponsored languages in the Turkih Republic?

  6. avatar
    Cãlin Rednic

    First of all let’s not mix everything… If they are refugees and they are about to return to their countries of origin when the situation will allow, they should be educated in the language they will use later in life. Nevertheless, it’s a plus and also an honor for them to learn the language of the country that guests them. On the other hand, if they are about to change their status from refugees to immigrants, it should be mandatory to be educated in the language of the receiving country, knowing that language transmits most of the culture.

  7. avatar
    Heba Elshazly

    Adding their native language as an extra subject would be nice ! Also it could help in creating jobs !

  8. avatar
    William Healey

    It’ll make it easier for UKIP voters to have them deported, which is what they want.

    So no, they should learn in the local language and be integrated.

    • avatar
      Ludovic Bouvier

      This is a false assumption. As someone who landed in a foreign country in my youngest age, I didn’t learn to write or to read my native language.

    • avatar
      Dóris Cavalcanti

      Ludovic Bouvier Didn’t your family teach your native language? Anyway, the important is to learn the language of the new country, it’s there you’ll have to study, work, contribute, live. Later you can study your native language if you want, the tax payers of the new country don’t have any obligation to have more this cost to please immigrants.

  9. avatar
    Wendy Harris

    Sorry, who is paying for all these different languages and all these different teachers? There is little enough money for education as it is. Obviously one language – the host nation’s. If parents wish otherwise then let them arrange and pay for private tutors.

  10. avatar
    Stefania Portici

    No, il bambino rifugiato che va in altri Paesi non è da solo, continuerà a parlare la sua lingua con la sua gente ma a scuola impara la lingua del Paese ospitante, sarà comunque bilingua . Più che altro serve che la UE investa nella scuola . INVESTIRE, SPENDERE A DEFICIT , questo serve per tutti .

    No, the refugee child who goes to other countries is not alone, he will continue to speak his language with his people but at school learn the language of the host country, will still be bilingual. More than anything you need the EU to invest in the school. INVEST, SPEND A DEFICIT, this is for everyone.

  11. avatar
    Nikolas Lodakis

    Yes as well as and in the language of the hosting country. For the ones which say no the following question should be asked. What happens when they return home. What language would then speak. So is important to learn both languages.

    • avatar
      Ludovic Bouvier

      I agree with this to a certain degree. We can even talk about integration because we give them a possibility to learn their language in objectivity of history. They should definitely learn the hosting country’s language first and as a second their native language if they wish so. It can contribute to stabilize this nations in war later on, with a generation bound by language and not by dialects. And it can open markets for the hosting countries too.

    • avatar
      Παυλος Χαραλαμπους

      My father was born in Egypt ( his was belonged to the Greek minority of that country) and he was lived half of his life in south it ill he was 5 year old he had to learn how to speak Arabic the when his parents immigrated to south Africa he had to learn how to speak English and a
      strange Dutch dialect called africaans(Boer)…at his 27 he wanted to go back to the ” land of his ancestors ” but he almost didn’t knew how to speak Greek, in the 80s there wasn’t many people that knew how to speak English so for some months he could find a job or sometimes a person to communicate!but he didn’t cave up and he learned his “new” language and he leaved his rest of in Greece. .so i think that a person that really wishes to go back to his/ her native country won’t stop to nothing even the language barrier

    • avatar
      Karoly Fazekas

      let’s be honest: they never will return to their country. If we do not want paralel societies we can not allow them to be educated them on their native language. We have to obligate them to learn and use the language of the host country.

  12. avatar
    Παυλος Χαραλαμπους

    They should be educated in their host’s country education system and in their host’s country language there is no question about it- if their parents want to teach the their native language they are free to do so but with no help from the host country government

  13. avatar
    Catarina Taveira Guerra

    Of course!!!!!! Children have the ability to learn several languages at the same time (two at least and just to begin – and this is mandatory in the European educative system). They have frequency in the regular system and they should have their native language as an extra curricular discipline. They’re here aren´t they? By the way, all European children that live abroad (inside Europe) should have their native language as a discipline integrated in the regular curricula or, at least, as an extra curricular discipline.

    • avatar
      Pedro Teixeira

      So they should be educated in their own language? Fine. But how exactly would that work? Would they be joined with “normal” native-speaking classes? I’m sure that sounds absolutely spectacular, but do keep in mind that, if Europe were to follow such idea, teachers would be forced learn several languages, and they would have to teach classes in various languages. Such process would be ridiculously time-consuming, as the teachers would have to waste time explaining the contents in various languages. This option would also create a lot of confusion between students, and eventual outrage, as students that just want to learn and be the best would be angry due to the fact that, instead of actually learning, they’d have to wait for the teacher to explain the contents to the non-native students in another language.
      The other option I see as of now, is grouping foreigners in specialized classes so they could learn in their own language, which would further promote the social exclusion you’re apparently trying to avoid.
      “oh, but they could be joined with native students during their free time/recess”.
      Yeah, I know that might sound spectacular too, but, if you’re still separating students based on their language, that would a) be discriminatory against foreigners due to their language being different than the native one, and b) create a rift between native and non-native speaking students.
      Bad idea all around. Study the impacts of an idea before approving it.

    • avatar
      Pedro Teixeira

      Furthermore, why not just adhering to a “common-ground” language, such as English? It’s been working out so far, hasn’t it?

    • avatar
      Catarina Taveira Guerra

      No, Pedro Teixeira. .. I said that they should have their native language as an extra curricular language discipline. In some european countries our portuguese children have portuguese language as an extracurricular activity /discipline. In other european countries portuguese parents have to pay if they want these lessons for their kids. … why not do the same for these ones. For these and ours as well. This happens in Germany, portuguese kids have portuguese language in public schools.

    • avatar
      Catarina Taveira Guerra

      plus- english as a common – ground language? In my opinion? Never. Outside UK , english is and always should be a second language – not “língua franca”; the Roman Empire is dead and gone!!!! And no, it´s not been working. Nowadays, most people only speak two languages (the native and english) and in my opinion , that´s very, very basic. Everybody should speak at least three.

  14. avatar
    Gloria Brady

    No they should take the language of the country they are in.and be taught there parents language as a second tongue what’s the point of going to a new country for a better life .to teach them in there own language is like segregation.

  15. avatar
    Jeanne Griffin

    No. They need to be taught when young that the nation which hosts them has its own.language, history, laws and traditions and is not an extension of their homeland.

  16. avatar
    Marco Boiocchi

    What kind of question is this?
    Try to go , like an immigrant , to La Mecca , and ask for your rights?
    Late you “ll explain to me….

  17. avatar
    Enric Mestres Girbal

    Not if we want them to integrate…their native language could be a second cultural part of their upbringing, preferably by their own families.

  18. avatar
    Alfredo Iannuzzi

    They should be educated both in their mother language to maintain their tradition and in the language of the country where they decided to live

  19. avatar
    Paul X

    Yes of course they should, and when I go and study in outer Mongolia I expect the course to be taken in English….to hell with the rest of the students

  20. avatar
    Elizabeth McLaughlin

    Not if they are in primary school – they should have some time each day to talk through any problems but at this young age they will pick up their new language quickly and benefit from this. In secondary school it becomes harder for them and may take longer, so a slow process of switch-over to the new language will keep their education on track, with an aim of fluency in their new native language by the end of a year, again with special time to talk through any problems. But they must learn in order to become fully-functioning citizens, and their parents should try to do the same and be encouraged to do so, especially the wives and mothers, who teach the children at home when they are small.

  21. avatar
    Jean-Paul Potet

    They should be educated in their mother tongue and prepared to return to where they come from as soon as possible.

  22. avatar
    Susan Caryl Harper

    No, they learn their native language from their parents. If after war their parents are returning to the country of origin, bilingual children will have greater opportunity.

  23. avatar
    Oli Lau

    sure, but “refugees” pay for all these services with their hard earned money. why should their neighbors pay for it through the state?

  24. avatar
    Andrew Chandler

    If their home language can help them in learning the new home language, it could be used sparingly and specifically to develop vocab quickly.

    • avatar
      Linda Munkley

      No why should we pay for translators in our schools. They must learn our language before starting school.

  25. avatar
    Louis Boczka

    Yes, if they wish, they could do it on their own time, not at the publics expense.

  26. avatar
    Marilyn Tassy

    Yes, my father and his generation of immigrants into the US all learned English in the US at school. What teacher could possibly know Russian, German, Italian, Hebrew etc.? He picked it up like nothing, he spoke his native language with his parents at home but at school only English was allowed.

    • avatar
      Marilyn Tassy

      My mistake, the answer should be no, they should speak the local langauge of the country they are living in.

  27. avatar
    Antonios Forlidas

    We would better focus on how we will stop the wars in the countries where the refugees come from, that we the christian civilized West started and supported and then to solve the problem with the language and other minor things.

  28. avatar
    Harald Schmitt

    what about containing over population ,like in the magreb states ,most refugees are young adult men in their 20 th with no prospect to a have a future at home ,still the uncontrolled having children continues ,over population is the key to strife and war

  29. avatar
    Amarillis Kroon

    If they want to stay in a country, they need to be educated in that country’s language, not their own
    I was an immigrant to the US as a child from Hungary..went to public school learned english in two months, spoke Hungarian at home me with my parents. Am now 68, speak both languages

  30. avatar
    Ildiko Sain

    If I had a child as a refugee I would let her/him educated in the language of our new home country and would like to have a course in addition on her/his native language. So that, when s/he will be an adoult, s/he will be able to use her/his mothertong in an aducated way, and would know basic things about her/his original culture. But this is me. What about offering several kinds of possibilities. The only one that I would omit is that the child be educated on her/his own mothertong only since s/he will have to survive in the new country first.

    • avatar
      Harry Small

      Well no – they’re refugees, the whole point is that they’re temporary. Why teach them in a language for a country they’ll soon be leaving?

    • avatar
      Ildiko Sain

      Harry Small Soon? You never know when. It can be 2 months, 2 years, 10 years. Your child must survive and get accepted in the foreign country, until then. And another point. The whole of your education is more valuable if you know a language and culture originally alien to you. Once you will get back to your home country, you will easily pick up what you missed in the other country.

  31. avatar
    Sándor Szilágyi

    The question was when i good understand that the mass of people they invaded and occupied europe should hier stay.Or hier is not a question an allegation,statment…

    • avatar
      Jozsef Osztronkovics

      The native children should be educated in their and the haste countries languish

    • avatar
      Sándor Szilágyi

      I suppose what is behind this question,because in the reality not possible find enough teacher for that languages.And then what could be the second?We should learn.And why?Because it is an islamisation process,and nothing to do with refugees.Therefore nobody can take this question as serious only so as i explain it.

  32. avatar
    Khloud Michel Haddad

    every refugee child should be study in a language of the country that it host him/ her , learn the new culture and be part of the new society .. they cannot live in a new country with their own culture and language .. and that does not mean that they should exclude the mother tongue language at home , but it should not be an obstacle preventing them to melt into the new society ! plus.. always learning languages in younger ages is easier than in older ages and has many advantages on the personality and on the academic study and even on the working possibilities in the future!

    • avatar
      Harry Small

      Why? refugees are not migrants, when it is safe to go home they should go home. As is what is happening to Afghanis now and Syrians shortly so then people in need of help from other conflicts can get the assistance they need.

  33. avatar
    Linda Munkley

    Yes but in their own country.
    No one that can’t speak english should be allowed into Britain let alone go to one of our school. More extended for the tax payers.

  34. avatar
    Simon Ranson

    No. They should go back as soon as it’s safe. They’re refugees, they don’t have a right to settle.

  35. avatar
    Harry Small

    They should be given safety in the nearest safe area until it’s time to return then they should go home. They are refugees not migrants.

  36. avatar
    Ana Margarida Neves

    No, because this way they’ll learn another language.

  37. avatar
    Filipe Barroso

    No. In order to achieve better integration, they should be educated in the language of the community they are in. Maybe, in order to achieve better educational results bilingual should be provided, but being educated in the new language, preferencial with local kids, is a better way.

  38. avatar
    Tracie L Costner

    Yes, but what these babies should be able to do is live in peace, in their homeland. They should have a childhood, be educated living happy and free.

  39. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    All EU (grand) ideas cost (national taxpayers) money. The EU should refrain to invite speculation to determine how much & the way member Nations apportion and distribute their national funds-, which includes money for refugees.

    Competences between the national federal state and its federal provinces are normally enshrined in one’s federal constitution, That may differ between members. The EU has neither.

    Normally, federal provinces are responsible for providing education and childcare for all children, including those seeking asylum, until the age of 15. Obviously, there are varying budgetary restraints throughout all member states.

    EU unitary standards in everything remain theory & a wish. Let members decide what they can afford according their available resources- not forgetting that assistance to refugees (not immigrants) is a “temporary” state obligation.

    Peaceful coexistence would eliminate all this waste & suffering. Instead worrying on minor issues & details- the EU could do better to attend to the bigger global picture of prevention.

  40. avatar

    No way. They must learn everything European style.

  41. avatar

    Every person should be educated in the language he can understand better, to his native language and to learn the language of the place he/she lives in if that region /country has different language than his/her own. How difficult is that?

  42. avatar

    talking about refugees
    1 reet #dumpertreeten

  43. avatar

    As a refugee, you are granted the right to live at the accepting country for the rest of your life. So it only makes sense that you need to educate them with the hosting country language and culture.

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