Refugees and ESL – what is the challenge?


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Something that is certainly high in our attention these days is the refugee crisis around the world. People are fleeing from the Middle East in the boat-loads and crushing down barriers between countries and screaming for help. Many countries have taken them in and some have not, but one thing remains. If all these refugees enter different countries, they will need to learn English or the language of that country.

However, this is not a new problem. The first time this ever happened to this kind of degree was in 1992 when the civil war broke out in Somalia and everyone in that country just ran for the border. Fortunately, there were planes waiting for them to take them to the rest of the world. But there were many problems that came out of this and lessons were learned.

The problems with the Somali Refugees learning English were this:

  1. Almost half of the refugee population were from the nomadic side of life and so were often illiterate in their own language let alone learning to read and write a new one, so the ESL groups had to teach them to read and write first, then teach them the English second.
  2. Many of the older refugees were resentful of being forced to leave their country, let alone move to another (non-Muslim) one and learn a whole new language.
  3. Many of the refugees had suffered major trauma from seeing their own relatives slaughtered before their eyes and so were not able to learn anything easily as simply surviving emotionally was the only thing they could do.
  4. Many found the transition to a new country difficult to digest as it was so different to their own world, and so simply learning how to use an electric oven or microwave was in itself a trial.
  5. Many found the cultural difference between a Muslim and Christian world too frightening particularly in terms of the rearing of their young children in a world or alcohol and mini-skirts. This ended up preoccupying their minds more than the acquisition of a new language.
  6. Some clung deeply to their own culture (through the retention of their own language) in order to retain their identity – and rightly so – however to the detriment of any form of assimilation into the developed world, therefore forming pockets of ‘Somali communities’ living exactly as they would in their country – including the mandatory Somali language.
  7. Many were simply afraid to learn another language as this may mean the end of their own rich cultural heritage.

However not all things went bad with the Somali refugees. In fact, many assimilated well into the education system and took advantage of the educational opportunities open to them that they would never have had back in their country. Some in fact did extremely well becoming doctors and lawyers and even politicians. A lot even became very well skilled in international relations so they too could go back to their war torn country and help sort things out.

The interesting thing however is that any Somali children who were born in the western world or were very young when they arrived became native speakers within a very short period of time. The interesting thing with them is that they now suffer from an interesting dilemma of being able to speak native English, understand Somali language, but not be able to speak it well or even at all. The disconnection between the two generations has led to many problems for the new generation who have lost a lot of their culture that was once held in their language. These people are literally straddling two worlds and the future is not looking bright for the Somali language for these people. Sadly, it will probably be something only held by the elders of their community and eventually die out unless they personally make a concerted effort to keep it alive.

So are things different for the Middle Eastern refugees today?

Some things are different:

  • They had already left their country and were on their way to Europe before they were taken in by other countries
  • They all have had to pay their own way to Europe, so a lot of them were already educated and could speak English to a certain extent
  • They have had to beg to be taken in to other countries
  • The Arabic language already has a rich literary component, so much of the language is accessible in written format.
  • Most of these refugees have been educated to some extent.
  • The fear of losing their language is less because there are many countries left today who still use this language medium.

Saying all this, I am in no way diminishing the impact of a civil war on a country, and the devastation of being a refugee. However, what I do notice this time is that though many things are the same, we in the western world have learned a lot from the 1992 refugee crisis, as following this was the Darfur crisis which had many similar traits as the Somali one.

We can only hope that the assimilation into the western world for this new group of refugees is a lot easier and they can benefit from what has been learned from the past.

Any comments?


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