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For refugees, language is just the first step…

For refugees, language is just the first step...

At JALT 2018, Matthias Prikoszovits (MP) from Universität Wien tells Sieon Lau (SL) about the importance of providing vocational experience, cultural knowledge and help on understanding legal language.

SL: Can you tell us about your experience of language teaching for refugees?
MP: I have taught both refugees who had attended school in their countries of origin and refugees who had not. Some of them had gone to school only few years. They hailed from countries like Afghanistan or Somalia. This means I have worked with illiterate adults, and it was very interesting to see how they made big advances in German, even though some of them were not used to studying in the context of a classroom, or were not even alphabetised in their native language. The atmosphere was very warm all the time, at the end of each course they’d always bring traditional food from their countries of origin to the course and they’d spoil me with wonderful delicacies.

SL: I presume that a lot of your students would have been A0 to A1 users. What were your strategies, and where do you think these students need the most support?
MP: Well, with certain groups I had to start with the letters of the alphabet from A to Z. This certainly needs time, but luckily I am a very patient teacher. I used different colours and drawings or pictures to facilitate the refugees’ learning processes. I wanted them to realise that the classroom is a safe environment where they don’t have to be afraid to make mistakes and where they always get support. They do not only need support learning a new language, but also getting familiar with the culture of the country they have come to live in. This is why we made a lot of excursions in Vienna, to museums and other cultural institutions, but also to companies — for instance to a bakery, where they could speak to people working there. So they could learn about the working life in Austria.

By introducing them to mobile language learning you can make them realise that learning can be done anywhere, at any time and autonomously with any mobile device.

SL: At Clarity we are interested in how mobile learning can help students with limited resources. Do you see mobile learning as the way to go?
MP: Absolutely. Refugees often have good skills dealing with mobile devices, especially smartphones. Many of them cover countless kilometres by foot and need smartphones for orientation or just to light up a dark path. By introducing them to mobile language learning you can make them realise that learning can be done anywhere, at any time and autonomously with any mobile device.

SL: We tend to think of refugees as people escaping from conflict zones. But that’s not the whole picture is it?
MP: That’s right. Refugees are just one part of the worldwide movement of people. You also have the migrant situation. The crisis of 2008 led to a significant increase in unemployment rates in Southern Europe, particularly among the younger population. As a consequence, many young Italians and Spaniards, including university graduates, decided to emigrate to countries in which German is an official language. This is the starting point for my doctoral thesis.

I wanted to find out whether German language courses in Spain and Italy had begun placing a stronger focus on the occupational and vocational aspects after the crisis. And my prediction was right: the thesis was able to show an increase of occupation-oriented elements in higher education curricula for German as a foreign language in Italy and Spain in that period.

During my research I realised at various points how important translational skills are in professional contexts. Yet experts and researchers in vocational language teaching seem to neglect this fact.

SL: What about the importance of teaching other things, such as translation and applying for medical insurance?
MP: During my research I realised at various points how important translational skills are in professional contexts. Yet experts and researchers in vocational language teaching seem to neglect this fact. Applying for a job and writing a CV are of course important topics to focus on, but there is so much more to job-related content. Cultural knowledge is crucial in vocational contexts, for example. The dos and don’ts at a business dinner may vary from culture to culture.

It is also helpful to know your rights and the insurance conditions in case of an accident in the workplace. In a foreign language you should know the most important words that frequently appear in contracts. In vocation-oriented language classes, learners should also be prepared for the language used in further professional training. So there are many aspects of occupation-oriented content that teachers and even researchers frequently overlook. And ideally, such content should also be integrated in language classes for refugees.

SL: Do you have any advice for a content developer like Clarity?
MP: In my opinion you should definitely focus on tools or apps that are easy to use and that encourage autonomous, interactive language learning. Ideal would be a combination of mobile learning and project work. I think refugees might also need to gain vocation-oriented qualifications such as time management or conflict resolution. Maybe you can find ways to focus on such a training.

You can contact Matthias at matthias.prikoszovits@univie.ac.at


Further reading:
The EU HOPES project for refugees, which also highlights mobile as the most convenient device for this group of learners.
Practical Writing, which has a focus on life skills for migrants.

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