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Language training programmes

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The focus of this section is on strategies to support resettled refugees’ acquisition of the language of the receiving community (often referred to as the target language). Some of the principles and strategies outlined in this section may apply to language programmes for refugee children and youth. Further detail on programmes for this group can be found here. Strategies for enhancing women’s participation in language training are addressed here.

Target language competence is a basic requirement for achieving independence in day-to-day matters such as shopping, banking and obtaining a driver’s license, as well as for negotiating systems such as health care and education. Resettled refugees who are able to communicate in the language of the receiving community will have access to a wider range of employment opportunities and are better equipped to participate in further education and training.

Language is one of the vehicles through which resettled refugees come to feel ‘part’ of the receiving community. It enables them to participate in informal interactions in neighbourhoods, whilst shopping and in community facilities; and ultimately to form meaningful social connections with others and keep up to date with current events.

Having the ability to comprehend basic safety instructions (such as traffic warnings or labels on medicines and appliances) and to contact an emergency service in the event of a health or security crisis, provides reassurance to resettled refugees, helping them to have a sense of security.

Facilitating language acquisition also helps to promote the human and civil rights of resettled refugees, enhancing their capacity to act as self-advocates in commercial transactions and in their dealings with employers, law enforcement personnel and government agencies. Language acquisition is particularly important for resettled refugees in parenting or guardianship roles as it can optimise capacity to support children and youth in their integration. While language training programmes require careful planning and adequate resourcing, they are an investment that reaps long term benefits for receiving communities. Resettled refugees who are able to communicate independently are better placed to contribute their skills and attributes.

Planning training programmes

When establishing an integration programme, think about:

  • a basic post-arrival language instruction programme with multiple instructional levels and class times that accommodate a variety of schedules. 
  • professional development for language teachers to enhance their capacity to teach and support resettled refugees.
  • incorporating language training as part of the work of volunteer support providers.
  • identifying and building relationships with existing adult education facilities to develop more advanced language training options.

In the longer term, aim for:

  • incorporating information on access to language training into refugee orientation programmes.
  • developing a flexible range of delivery options (e.g. specialist class-based programmes, on-line and distance learning, work and community-based options, full and part-time study).
  • coordinating, monitoring and quality assurance mechanisms (e.g. benchmarking; national curricula).
  • standardised pre-course analysis.
  • advanced language training options for those wishing to advance to further education and training.
  • targeting language training towards a specific trade or career.
  • technical support for language training programme providers.
  • linkages between post-arrival language training programmes and vocational counselling and education.
  • enhancing the capacity of volunteer support providers to contribute to language acquisition.
  • learning options for those with low levels of participation in formal language training programmes.
  • building a work  force of bilingual teaching professionals and teaching assistants.
  • liaising with relevant teacher training facilities to develop and maintain staff with skills in adult education, cross-cultural learning, second language acquisition, and teaching learners with differing levels of literacy.
  • establishing specialist teacher qualifications in second language learning for adults, children and youth.
  • professional development and debriefing for language training providers to enhance their capacity to support learners with refugee backgrounds.
Factors affecting target language acquisition and participation in language training
Women providing training

Factors which affect a resettled refugee’s capacity to acquire a second language include:

  • their level of literacy in their own language. People who are literate in their own language learn a second language more readily. Second language acquisition depends in part on learners having grasped basic communicative and numeracy concepts in their first language.
  • their fluency in languages other than their mother tongue.
  • their prior familiarity with the target language or a variation thereof.
  • their age, as learning another language becomes more difficult with age.
  • the extent to which they are experiencing stress associated with the resettlement experience.

There are a number of factors which may affect resettled refugees’ participation in language training programs, including:

  • their familiarity with a classroom environment. Some resettled refugees may have had no or very little formal education.
  • family responsibilities and the availability of appropriate childcare options.
  • other integration demands. Some resettled refugees may find it difficult to give priority to language learning over other tasks of integration.
  • economic factors. Resettled refugees may wish or need to give priority to employment over language learning.
  • gender roles and cultural norms. For example, in some cultures it may be unacceptable for women to participate in a mixed-gender settings or cultures where the role of women is seen to be primarily in the home, language learning may not be seen as a priority for refugee women.
  • their physical and mental health status.

Factors in the resettlement country affecting language acquisition and training include:

  • whether formal language training programmes are offered and their accessibility. This will depend in part on the size and composition of the resettlement programme and the geographic distribution of new refugee arrivals.
  • the availability of an appropriately qualified and experienced staff to support language training, including teaching professionals, interpreters, bilingual support staff and teachers with expertise in target language training.
  • availability of age appropriate language instruction that meets different learning needs of different age groups and different literacy levels.
  • the extent to which existing educational facilities are orientated to meet adults with special educational needs. The education systems of many countries of resettlement are highly developed, well established and oriented to meet the needs of nationals with a continuous educational history.
  • whether income support payments are made available to resettled refugees while they participate in language training programs. This is usually influenced by the expectations of the resettlement country in relation to economic self-sufficiency.
  • the availability of supports to enable resettled refugees to participate in language training (e.g. childcare, transport).
  • opportunities to practice the target language.
  • languages spoken. In some countries a number of local dialects may be spoken in addition to the official language. It may be of equal, if not greater, importance for resettled refugees to learn these languages if they are to manage and participate in the receiving community.

Video - USA HIAS

Volunteer and English tutor describes her work with a resettled refugee from the Central African Republic.

Planning issues to consider in target language programmes

Offering formal language training programmes on arrival

While most countries make some provision for post arrival language training, there are variations in the duration of language training programmes and their position in the integration process.

Teacher interacting with student near white board

Three approaches can be distinguished. In some countries language training is offered via a basic and time limited programme, conducted as part of the refugee reception process. The focus is on imparting the language skills needed to accomplish basic tasks such as banking and using public transportation. Opportunities for ongoing language training are available. However, the emphasis is on resettled refugees accessing these programmes concurrently with paid employment, either through training provided in the workplace or outside of working hours through community-based programmes. This approach is promoted in the belief that resettled refugees will learn the language more quickly through their day-to-day interactions in the receiving society, and in particular through employment. In some countries, it is thought that overall integration goals are better served through early economic self-sufficiency, a process that would be delayed by extended participation in a dedicated language training programme.

A second approach is where extended specialist language training programs are a core component of the integration program. In these countries it is thought that given a grounding in the target language, resettled refugees will have better prospects for getting into employment, accomplish other integration tasks more independently, and participate on a more equal footing in the receiving community. It is also recognised that the process of acquiring a new language as an adult is a difficult one which is further complicated for refugees by the stress of the resettlement experience. Income support is provided in the belief that resettled refugees will acquire the target language more readily if they do not simultaneously face the additional demands of searching for and participating in paid employment.

Example from Sweden

All municipalities in Sweden offer resettled refugees language training within the “Swedish for Immigrants Programme” (SFI) or equivalent courses no later than three months after the individual's arrival. Newly arrived refugees are also obliged to participate in civic orientation. All school-age children, in the custody of a person or persons whose native language is not Swedish, are entitled to tuition in their native language at primary and secondary schools. For more information, please click here.

A third approach is where resettled refugees are offered language instruction free-of-charge and have access to social support payments to enable their participation. However, in these countries planning for language training is individualised and more formally linked with vocational counselling, further education and employment placement through individualised ‘introduction’ plans. This may involve a program of part-time language training alongside part-time employment. It is important that the circumstances and priorities, as well as learning needs, of individual resettled refugees are respected in relation to language training.

Language training will be a vital first step in the integration process for many resettled refugees. Others will see their integration goals as being better served through early employment. Even in those countries offering relatively generous conditions for participation, the reality is that income support payments typically cover basic living costs only. While in most cases this is to ensure parity with income support paid to nationals outside of the labour market [insert link] they may be prohibitively low for resettled refugees who face additional costs involved in building a life in a new country. Some may also be supporting relatives overseas. Resettled refugees in these circumstances may have no choice but to give priority to employment over language training. Nevertheless, experience in countries offering specialist language programs suggests that the majority of refugees will participate. Resettlement countries can support resettled refugees to balance language learning with other integration objectives by providing flexible language learning options.

Language acquisition as a process not a program

Language acquisition is an ongoing and lengthy process. It is important that there are ongoing opportunities for resettled refugees to participate in language learning. Adequate provision will also need to be made for interpreting and translating services. Even if functional in the target language, resettled refugees may require assistance when communicating about matters requiring higher proficiency or in circumstances that require technical language (e.g. health care or legal matters).

Language training as a resource for integration

Language training programs delivered in an integration context are distinguished from those which may be offered to nationals in a traditional educational environment, in that one of their primary goals is to support refugees to integration in their new country. In most countries post-arrival language training programs emphasise language learning for social and communicative competence, rather than for achieving technical proficiency. Typically programs combine language training with learning about practical integration tasks and the laws, customs and practices of the receiving society. This approach has been adopted recognising that target language training is more likely to be effective if it is based on adult learning principles and is meaningful to the everyday lives and needs of adult learners in their roles as shoppers, parents, citizens and so on. Some countries also link language training with vocational education, training ,and employment placement by focusing on vocabulary, terms and concepts to support employment prospects.

Language training and cultural adjustment

Language training programs enable resettled refugees to acquire the target language and learn about the receiving society. However, there should also be opportunities to value the learner’s first language and culture by promoting multi/dual language use and incorporating the history, literature and cultural experiences of refugees into curricula and in the classroom.

The merits of rebuilding and maintaining cultural connection and exchange are central to the integration process. Similar considerations apply in the use of resettled refugees’ first languages. The process of learning a second language is more likely to be effective if individuals have ongoing opportunities to use their mother tongue.

Funding and planning of language training programs

In most resettlement countries responsibility for funding, planning, coordinating and monitoring language training programs lies with national governments. However, in recognition of the importance of implementing integration at a more localised level, programs are generally delivered by educational institutions, community-based and non-governmental organisations as well as by municipal governments.

For example, in Canada language classes are provided at no cost to permanent residents and protected persons through the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) programme. This is funded through the government and delivered by a range of providers across the country. The classes are taught by qualified and experienced teachers at flexible locations, such as online or in classrooms with other students held in schools, colleges, community organsiations. Learning can be on a part-time or full-time basis, during the day, evening during the week or weekends. In some locations childrecare is offered as well as transportation to and from classes. For more information, please click here.

Developing language training on the basis of adult learning principles

Adult education is more likely to be effective if:

  • learners are involved in planning and implementing learning activities;
  • curriculum draws upon learners’ experiences as a resource. This provides a foundation for learning new things and enhances readiness for learning;
  • it cultivates self-direction in learners as an important characteristic of adulthood. This may need to be encouraged as many participants may be more familiar with teacher directed learning environments;
  • it is delivered in a climate which encourages and supports learning, which is characterised by trust and mutual respect, and in which conflict is effectively managed;
  • a spirit of collaboration is fostered in the learning setting, in recognition of the fact that both teachers and learners have something to contribute;
  • it uses small groups to promote teamwork and encourages interaction between students;
  • it is based on an understanding of learners’ experiences and communities (e.g. taking into account such factors as gender, resettlement experience);
  • it involves adult learners in identifying and establishing their own evaluation techniques.
Initiatives for facilitating target language acquisition

Flexible delivery options

A flexible range of delivery options is important, as:

  • some options may be more suited to those with specific learning needs (for example, home tutoring may be more accessible to women with childcare responsibilities, and persons with disabilities).
  • more formalised learning options will be required for those wishing to participate in advanced language training and further education and training.
  • language acquisition is an ongoing process. In addition to formal classes, providing access to flexible learning options such as on-line instruction and home tutor schemes, can refine language skills.
  • in those countries where resettled refugees are placed outside of large urban centres it may be difficult to offer all new arrivals a group-based program.
  • flexibility allows for decision-makers and integration providers to explore opportunities for learning in a range of social contexts such as the workplace and in education institutions.
  • resettled refugees who are in employment may have limited time to attend classes.

Individualised pre-course needs analysis

Analysis of the language training needs of resettled refugees is conducted in a number of countries prior to their entry into a language training program. Some countries have developed standard assessment instruments for this process. Needs analysis helps to:

  • assess refugees’ mother-tongue literacy and their knowledge in the target language so that they can be placed in a course at an appropriate level.
  • enable language training providers to establish with resettled refugees their language learning goals, i.e. whether they are learning primarily to manage day-to-day life in the receiving community or for the purposes of further training and study. In some countries, pre-course needs analysis is specifically linked with vocational orientation and counselling to support resettled refugees to plan appropriate learning and training pathways.
  • identify participants with specific language learning needs (e.g. accounting for different levels of literacy levels).

Building language training capacity in emerging resettlement countries

Language training programs take some time to build and there are cost considerations. In the initial phase, emerging resettlement countries might consider:

  • establishing a task force or working group of specialists (such as adult education experts and language teachers) who can assist in identifying appropriate language programmes, placement options and other strategies for language training.
  • developing a long-term plan for building language training capacity (three to five years and beyond), aimed at linking early language training with other existing formal or specialised courses.
  • liaising with existing educational institutions to offer advanced language training.
  • tutor programs (offered by paid or trained volunteer teachers), an option where numbers do not warrant a more formal programme.
  • incorporating informal language training into the roles of volunteer support providers.

Quality assurance

It is important that strategies are developed to ensure an appropriate standard of programme delivery and that the objectives of language training programmes are broadly consistent both with one another and with national integration goals. Specific initiatives in established resettlement countries include:

  • language benchmarking (or scales of communicative proficiency). As well as providing a basis for conducting a pre-course needs assessment, benchmarks can be useful tools for setting standards for language training programs, for teacher training and for promoting clear communication among language training staff and between them and funding bodies, employer organisations, assessors and licensing bodies. Canada, Australia and Ireland have national benchmarks for language training programs.
  • national curricula. For example, in Canada and Australia, providers of language programs have developed a national curriculum. Recognising the need for flexibility, the curriculum is not highly prescriptive, but outlines broad content areas, objectives and competencies.
  • technical assistance bodies and resources. For example, in the USA the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning supports community-based language training programs through the provision of professional development programs, curriculum development and advice on program design. In the EU, the Council of Europe offers a toolkit for language support of adult refugees.
  • quality assurance systems.

Language training for resettled refugees with additional or more intensive need

Hand pointing on paper


Resettled refugees who have no or limited mother-tongue literacy may have additional language training needs. Resettlement countries have sought to support the participation of these groups in language training and to enhance learning outcomes by:

  • combining psycho-social and integration support with language training. For example, in some countries partnerships have been formed between providers of language training and integration support.
  • delivering language training in contexts that are outside of a classroom environment (e.g. as part of recreational or social activities).
  • ensuring that a flexible range of language training options is available.
  • providing practical assistance to access language training (e.g. childcare, transportation).
  • providing specialist professional development or qualifications for teachers working with refugees with specific literacy needs, since this task requires different skills and approaches.
  • offering a longer and/or more intensive period of language training to refugees with specific literacy needs.
  • developing opportunities for bilingual instruction. These will be particularly important for refugees with specific literacy needs, as some concepts cannot be taught in a second language until they are grasped in the first.
  • engaging key professional actors who work in locations where there is a significant refugee population in planning language programmes.

The importance of flexibility: Delivery options for language training programmes

There are range of models for delivering language training, including:

  • specialist group-based programs.
  • work based programs.
  • home based tutor schemes (delivered by paid teachers or trained volunteers).
  • ‘distance’ education programmes.
  • on-line learning.
  • instruction within and outside of conventional working hours as well as on a full- and part-time basis.

Targeted actions are required to ensure an age, gender and diversity (AGD) sensitive approach.

Encouraging participation in language training programmes

Childcare support

In a number of countries, national governments fund the cost of childcare to enable resettled refugees with family responsibilities to participate in language training. Where national funding is not available for this purpose, volunteer programmes may provide an important source of childcare.

Curriculum resources

Curriculum resources enable practice to be documented and made available to a wider range of language training providers.

Staff development and support

Teaching professionals working in an integration context require additional skills in the areas of second language acquisition, adult learning approaches and cross-cultural education, as well as in teaching adults with specific literacy needs. In countries with well-established refugee programmes, specialist qualifications have been established for target language teachers working in adult settings (either as a specialty within a teaching qualification or as a post-graduate course of study). In other countries, a technical support agency or a teacher training institution may provide professional development to teaching staff.

Consider providing the following information to assist teaching professionals and volunteers to provide effective language training to resettled refugees:

  • profile of the refugees being resettled (age, language, education and basic information on the countries of origin and asylum).
  • the impact of the resettlement experience on the learning process.
  • social and integration supports available to resettled refugees in the receiving country.
  • how to refer students requiring further support.
  • specific curriculum and other resources available to teachers.
  • cross-cultural training.
Good practice features

A sound integration programme would:

  • incorporate target language training as an integral component of a refugee integration programme.
  • ensure that language training programmes receive adequate, stable and ongoing funding.
  • establish mechanisms for the central coordination, planning and monitoring of language programmes.
  • develop national standards for language training programmes.
  • have strategies in place to build staff capacity for the delivery of language programmes.
  • offer a range of options in programme type and instructional format recognising the diversity in capacities, competencies and aspirations among and different learning needs of resettled refugees.
  • provide income and other supports to enable participation in language training.
  • ensure linkages between language training and other integration processes, in particular, orientation, social support, vocational counselling, further education and training and employment placement.
  • ensure that resettled refugees have continued access to interpreters until they have acquired communicative competence (and thereafter in matters requiring more technical language proficiency).

Adult language training programmes would:

  • operate on adult learning principles.
  • respect and value the learner’s first language and culture by promoting opportunities for multi/dual language use and incorporating the history, literature and cultural experiences of refugees into curricula and in the classroom.
  • have individualised assessment procedures to ensure that training opportunities are tailored to the competencies and aspirations of resettled refugees, including those with additional language training needs.
  • reflect the social context of the language taught and the importance of experiential learning.
  • provide or facilitate access to childcare.
  • be provided by staff with appropriate technical teacher training in second language acquisition and adult learning as well as professional development in identifying and responding to the additional needs of refugees in a learning context.
  • take care to counter any signs of racism and discrimination in the learning environment.