Language barriers and the importance of language learning for refugee and migrant communities in Europe

Migrant people often travel to Europe through many countries before reaching their destination. Each country they enter has different cultures and customs, and language plays a major role in facilitating or hindering their journey.

Understanding and being able to communicate in a language allows us to access information and make informed decisions. For thousands of people living in transit and in refugee camps, language barriers are a difficult reality of everyday life. They often rely on information from refugees and friends who have gone through the same experience, especially because local authorities, humanitarian aid workers, and volunteers do not usually speak their languages. Refugees and displaced persons are exposed to more threats to their lives when they do not speak the local language. In some refugee camps, volunteers offer language lessons to bridge the gap left by government institutions that have failed to address the needs and rights of refugees. Generally, they can only get professional linguistic help from interpreters and translators via non-profit organisations and NGOs.

In European host countries, languages continue to be a challenge for refugees in the integration process. Language barriers may prevent successful communication with the local population on a daily basis, and significantly reduce access to essential services and support, which is often inaccessible to refugees who are not familiar with the Latin alphabet, or who have low levels of literacy in their own languages. For many refugees arriving in Europe, learning English, or the local language of the host country, is one of the first steps to take. For those who pick up some vocabulary and are able to introduce themselves or manage a short conversation, there is still a long way to go before they can talk about health issues or legal matters. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, European governments are slow to provide sufficient language support to people seeking asylum.

Multilingual refugee children, due to their ability to learn languages ​​quickly, are often interpreters for their parents. Their learning is informal and disrupted, leaving significant gaps in their education, and some refugee children are unable to access education in their host countries due to language barriers. This leads to further complications on multiple levels, because schools, educational institutions, and outreach centres are often vital pathways for integration. Many adolescents and young adults have also missed out on education due to long periods of time spent in refugee camps, or between countries. For them, learning the language is another obstacle to overcome. They must be able to speak, read and write the language of their host country before they can access training courses or gain any work experience, to increase their chances of finding employment. Adults face equally frustrating setbacks. Many of them arrive in Europe with advanced skills and experience, but the language barrier prevents them from entering the job market, building relationships, and taking steps towards financial and social stability. This highlights the importance of providing linguistic support to refugees, both during the asylum application process, and as they integrate into a new environment.

Open Cultural Center supports migrants and refugees in Spain and Greece by offering free language classes, with the aim to support refugees’ integration and improve their chances of accessing training and employment opportunities. In Barcelona, there are online classes in Arabic, English, Catalan, and Spanish at the Language Lab. OCC Greece offers Greek and English classes to hundreds of adults and children living in Nea Kavala refugee camp. These classes allow students to improve their linguistic skills, and they also provide them with a sense of community and a chance to make new friends.

Although these initiatives and similar ones by other organisations are very impactful, they are not a sustainable solution to language provision for refugees. They rely on the time and dedication of volunteers, who do not necessarily have teaching qualifications and are unable to provide certificates from accredited language schools. Ultimately, the governments of host countries are responsible for providing adequate services and support for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, including quality language education and linguistic assistance.