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Collaborative language learning for new immigrants

20/11/2015
Language: EN
Document available also in: DA

Vox has launched a train-the-trainer course for language trainers in the volunteer sector. The initiative is a response to the dramatic increase of refugee arrivals to Norway, recognizing the importance of language training as an enabler to integration.

The training is not about formal language learning according to international standards and levels. It is about equipping volunteers with an easy to use tool kit to help refugees acquire the common words and phrases they need to cope in the initial phase after arrival to a new country.

Participants are recruited through volunteer associations offering informal language training to refugees at libraries, language cafés, refugee reception centres across the country.

Context and role

As the Vox trainers opens the floor, participants are introduced to the context as seen from the refugees’ perspective and to their roles as volunteers.

– How do you think it feels like to arrive in a new country with no knowledge of the language?

– It is pretty awful, and most people would feel helpless, dependent, isolated, and deprived of their communicative capabilities as members of society.

– Your roles are not as teachers, but as speaking partners for people who have no knowledge of our language and who need to learn some basic words and phrases to be able to communicate and cope in their daily life.

Oral approach

The course presents an oral approach to language learning and demonstrates a series of collaborative speaking exercises for small groups that the volunteers try out and practice on each other during the one evening course at Vox. In addition, Vox has set up a dedicated space on vox.no where people can access all resources used during the course. Google translate gives an impression of the content. By opening "Øvelser" you will get access to video clips illustrating the practical exercises described in the article.

The learning concept is adapted for Norwegian language learning by Toril Kristin Sjo, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Oslo. She has developed a comprehensive training method including guidance and videos showing how to run the exercises. In «Guide to methods: The Oral Approach to Language Learning» (pdf) from 2013, the oral approach, which is suitable for language training regardless of previous knowledge, is discussed in detail.

Stronger focus on pronunciation

This fall, Toril Sjo published a textbook on the same subject. The question is what changes she has made compared to the Guide, published two years earlier.

– I have experienced that that pronunciation and accent in words and phrases is more important for making people understand than discussed in the Guide. – Pronunciation as such is a strong vehicle for understanding, and errors are an important source of misunderstandings, more so than with incorrect grammar.

Sjo points out that high doses of speaking practice and exercising, day-in and day-out, repeating, copying and comparing pronunciation from the trainer is key to the learning.

She is currently at Sorbonne in Paris as peripatetic teacher, and uses the method on herself to learn French. – I challenge myself, and my students to pick weekly sentences for intensive practice. The sentence needs to be quite basic and should address some challenges we might have regarding pronunciation, accent, intonation or understanding. After a week of frequent practice, there is hope that the sentence is internalized, she says.

Frequent and practical

Language learning includes knowledge about and of a given language, as well as language skills. In the initial phase of training, building the skills by using the language is key.

– The goal is little by little to understand, speak, communicate and orient oneself is interaction with others in various social contexts.

In most cases of refugee language training, the work needs to start without a common language as point of reference. To compensate, and create a common ground for communication from the beginning, the work needs to be down-to-earth, e.g. by using concrete objects and pictures.

Language learning happens through listening and speaking. The ear has to get used to the sounds of the language, but the skills are not developed by listening only. – You don’t become a piano player by listening to brilliant artists, it takes a lot of practice, says Sjo.

The trainer models words and sentences for the participants to copy and repeat. To ensure they practice according to the pronunciation model, the trainer will record the modelling for the learners to use on their mobile phones.  

Collaboration with strong trainer control

Language learning according to this method is known as collaborative learning.

In various interactive exercises, learners get the opportunity to try out, develop capabilities and use the new language. They act as resources to themselves and each other, which helps to keep the exercises within the comfort zone of most participants.

The training sessions follows a tight structure with hands on directions from the trainer who demonstrates «how to», makes sure all learners are active, and then remains silent. The point is for the learners to speak, - as much as possible and in equal measure. A new word needs to be used repeatedly in at least ten various contexts to be learned by heart. Frequency of practice is necessary, and an efficient method is to work with learning partners, preferably at the same language level.

– In the initial phase, it is not about engaging into meaningful adult conversations. It is about learning vocabulary and pronunciation related to relevant topics and individual needs, Toril Sjo concludes.

(Photograph: Ørn E. Borgen/Aftenposten/NTB scanpix)

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