By Marie Delaney

21 July 2016 - 12:00

Classroom activity. Photo (c) Hayssam Moussawi.
'Language classrooms could support children who've been through trauma.' Photo ©

Hayssam Moussawi.

Marie Delaney, co-author of a new British Council report called Language for Resilience, explains how language learning has helped refugees cope with their situations.

The report mentions that language classes can help with trauma. Why is that?

Having a class to go to gives you a safe place, structure, and something to do. But it's more than that: language is the medium we use to express ourselves. Even learning foreign words that describe feelings could be important. The unfamiliar language can give some distance from the emotions, perhaps making them feel 'safer' to talk about.

A language class gives you the opportunity to tell your story. You can discuss something that has happened in the third person, or use puppets and drama. These techniques allow people to tell their stories and describe emotions without feeling as vulnerable. A traditional 'chalk and talk' grammar class won't offer this, but a communicative classroom could.

Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) offer 'psychosocial support'. These are activities in a safe space that can help talking about the effects of the trauma many children have suffered. But this kind of support is often done somewhere else, separate from school; or, if in a school, outside the classroom.

What’s different in our report is the recommendation that language classrooms themselves could support children who've been through trauma. This would not be instead of extra psychosocial support; but it would add to it. We believe that learning a language can be a protective factor in helping people recover.

What else can we do to help strengthen refugees’ resilience?

Working with refugees is not about building resilience from scratch, because they are already incredibly strong and adaptable people. It's about working together and with them to boost this resilience.

There are different organisations and institutions working with refugees, so it's important to take into account the complexity of the picture in each country that hosts refugees. But there are things we could do, in terms of bringing together sectors – language learning providers and those who run peace-building or civil society programmes, for example. Language programmes that bring together different communities have been set up. We could also help teachers develop skills in classroom management, how to plan lessons for multilingual classrooms, and how to include all students equally in class activities.

Anything that happens has to have positive effects for the host country, too. To be successful, any programme must help people from the host community as well as the refugees.

What did the refugees tell you that they wanted, in terms of language learning?

They want to learn English to communicate, and to talk about their experience as Syrians. They want to feel like they are moving forward towards something, and that they are valued, that their culture and language are valued, and they are valued as people.

Many of the people we talked to felt that, even if they had little control over their situation, they could still learn something new. They're making use of their time. Learning English, in itself, can be a refuge. It can help people come through trauma.

Which countries did you look at?

We visited Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Erbil, in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq, over six months.

The research was complex because it was regional, rather than confined to one country; and because we studied both the formal and the informal education sector. 'Formal' means official, government-run schools and classes, and 'informal' means the classes and schools run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the refugee camps. It was sometimes more difficult to do classroom observations in the 'formal' sector because of the need to get official permission from the ministry of education.

Who are the language teachers?

In the formal school system, the teachers tend to be local. In the informal classes in the camps, there are volunteer teachers. Some of these are trained teachers, but most of them are Syrian professionals: lawyers, engineers or university students who happen to know some English but have no formal teacher training. Often, they can't work in the host country because of their refugee status, so they want to do something useful with their time.

What languages do the refugees speak?

Syrian refugees mostly speak Arabic. But it's a different variation of Arabic from the Arabic spoken in, say, Jordan or Lebanon. Syrians see their variant of Arabic as pure and classical. There's no barrier to understanding other Arabic speakers, but it does mark them as different. For instance, they told us that local taxi drivers would often recognise them as Syrian by their accent.

The refugees come from all sorts of backgrounds, education levels and professions, and have different language needs as a result. Often, people think the refugees are all poor and homeless, but they aren't. You might come across a university professor who used to live in a beautiful villa in Aleppo.

What’s the priority when it comes to language teaching – the refugees’ mother tongue, the host countries’ language, or English?

We found that many young people, the under-35s, put a big priority on learning English because they see it as a useful, international skill to have, and a way to communicate with the outside world. English improves their chances of getting a job or a place at university. They also want to access information online, which is often in English. It's a misconception that all refugees want to learn English as a way to leave. Of course some of them, particularly young people, wanted to go to Europe or Canada; but they also talked about learning skills to go back one day and rebuild Syria.

Many people also want to learn language skills so they can communicate privately, and advocate for themselves. It’s a question of personal dignity. If you've got a medical issue, you might not want to have to tell the doctor about it through an interpreter. Parents want to be able to help their children with their English homework, and to have conversations with teachers without needing to rely on their children to translate.

The older generation sees their language as a way of keeping their cultural identity, despite being displaced. We know that children's access to education in their home language affects their success in school in general. But research also shows that if you have a strong foundation in your home language, it's easier to acquire a second language.

What were the biggest challenges that you noticed?

What you notice first is the sheer number of people. The Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan is so big that it is more like a city. In Lebanon, the official system is so overwhelmed that schools run two shifts – Lebanese children learn in the morning, and Syrian children attend in the afternoon. Jordan also runs a two-shift system.

Pupils learn foreign languages later in Syrian schools, and on top of that, often these children have been out of school for two or three years, so they have fallen behind. A fair amount of children drop out of the official mainstream schools and get picked up by the informal school system. Many of the NGOs are attempting to organise after-school catch-up language classes for children and young adults who want to study, and for older adults who want to work.

The state education systems in Lebanon and Jordan were already under strain before the refugee crisis, and the huge influx of refugee children nearly broke them. The teachers and schools didn't know how to cope - both from a lack of physical resources, and training. It's simple things, like not even having enough classrooms or even chairs in the classroom, as well as a lack of classroom management techniques for managing diverse classes. The teachers are often inexperienced, not well-paid, and probably haven't had a lot of professional development.

We found that when the teachers got some help, their attitudes changed. Some of them had seen the Syrian children as unteachable because they often couldn't do what they were asked to do and this frustration led to arguments and even fights. When they got some support on how to manage a classroom of children with mixed abilities and mixed educational and linguistic backgrounds, it really helped.

Find out more in our report summary and the report, which was released today.

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