Syria’s refugees need many things; safety, food and education to name just a few. But in order for them to truly thrive—both in host countries and once they can eventually return home—it’s critical to develop their linguistic skill, in their native Arabic as well as in languages such as Turkish, English and French.
The languages and strategies that organizations and governments should focus on differ from country to country. These are some of the findings of a new report on language resilience recently released by the British Council.
The goal of the report is to provide information about the needs of Syrian refugees for language acquisition, and about the methods to address it, for organizations and governments involved in the refugee response process. It’s the first step in a concerted effort, says Joseph Field, the British Council’s senior project manager in Jordan.
“We hope it will show people what they need to do and how they can come together and really improve the circumstances of refugees,” he says.
The question of which language to focus on varies because countries in the region place different emphases on languages in their educational systems. But Field says language resilience isn’t just for students.
“It’s about everybody,” he says, “It’s about young people in higher education, parents trying to support their children, older people who are trying to communicate with doctors and adults looking for employment.”
“It’s also for professors and school leaders trying to handle this huge influx of students from different educational backgrounds,” adds Field.
The report suggests that for refugees in Jordan, it’s important to develop English skills in addition to Arabic in both formal and non-formal settings. “If you are a child coming into the education system in Jordan who has never studied English before then you’re in a more critical context,” says Field.
Iraq is also noted as a place where English is vital both because it’s needed and because there is potential for English teachers to improve their methods, explains Field.
In Lebanon, the report says, it’s important to advance language teachers’ skills and build on programs already doing well. To be successful in Lebanon requires a person to be fluent in English, Arabic and French.
This poses a unique set of challenges for Syrian refugee students. While the report praises Lebanon for its successful work on promoting inclusion into its multi-cultural classrooms, it says difficulties arise when English and French are delivered as a second language in schools instead as a foreign language, an issue that teachers could be made more aware of. It is further recommended that teachers need support to properly understand the loss and displacement trauma that learning in a foreign language can entail.
In Turkey, it’s naturally the Turkish language that is of key concern, but not just in formal language training—the report stresses the need for Syrians to acquire practical Turkish skills to be able to use public transport, services and employment.
The main thing that the British Council’s Field wants readers to glean from the report is to take the issue seriously. He says his organization has been working on language resilience in Jordan for about four years now with a number of different training programs, but that they hadn’t given it a name until recently.
He hopes that calling it “language resilience” will raise the profile of the problem and bring together different ideas and practices which have until now been considered separate.
“This is a call to action. The British Council is working in this area in all countries that are hosting Syrian refugees,” he says, “We welcome any interest from universities and NGOs to support the effort.”