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Connecting language(s) – Language work with displaced people

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Keel: EN
Document available also in: DE SV

Head of Thomas Fritz shares his thoughts about loss of language, voluntary language work and mutual language exchange. This article is part of the publication "Sustainable adult education in relation to immigration and asylum" published in December 2016 by EPALE Austria.

Flight is that kind of migration, which is characterised by particularly tough conditions: the so-called country of origin is neither left voluntarily, nor is the so-called arrival country the long-sought destination. The language spoken there is not the one the people have always been wanting to learn. Flight is for the most part characterised by long, exhausting and life-threatening journeys. Not only does flight result in the loss of familiar surroundings and networks that provide stability, but also in the final or threatened loss of loved ones. Quite often, flight also means arrival in a society, which for make-believe fear retreats to xenophobia and defence. The education of children and adolescents is interrupted, and can be continued only rarely, and if so, only with incredible effort and delay.

Loss of language

When people flee from violence, war, and the destruction of their living environment, then discussions about upper limits and border fences prevailing in the so-called arrival country intensify existing traumas: this happens in combination with the loss of one’s language and the impossibility to communicate the way one had been used to.

Loss of language is always accompanied by the constraint and the necessity to learn the new national language. For a few years now, it could be observed here, that in many discussions, German has been equated with language as such, so that everything not corresponding to the normality of German is automatically estranged and alienated. Learning German becomes an obligation, when it should, be an opportunity. Learning German is a burden, above all when people actually want and have to think of something entirely different. Learning German can mean the loss of other languages, as a Bosnian war refugee appropriately described it a few years ago. He sees German as “[a] foreign world, a distant galaxy in the head, this German language, where everything is the other way around, that’s what they often said” (Busch and Busch 2008, p. 25). To him, the various languages he speaks “live” in pockets in his brain, and German is put in the same pocket as English, so the more German is put into this pocket, the more English disappears.

“You could say they belong into the same pocket in my head. And there was not enough space for both. The more German words I learned, the less English ones I kept in my head. Or better, I have more difficulties when I need to use the English.” (ibid)

This example shows very well, what a huge challenge learning a language can be – and the gradual loss of English with the advance of German.

Voluntary language work

Please allow me a few thoughts on voluntary language work. Most of the time, volunteers are above all very committed, however, quite often they have never in their life taught languages, sometimes they have a primary school teaching background and are not used to working with adults, but with children. Quite often, the possibility to work with professional language teachers does not exist, there is a lack of funds, of structures or simply of professional teachers. This, however, may also present a great opportunity, namely not to teach language and grammar, but to use language as what it is: a means for communication.

I am firmly convinced that natural communication, speaking and above all listening is a much more effective way to approach a language than teaching abstract grammar rules. Language in its natural, communicative, authentic form is what the refugees need. They likewise need language as an expression of empathy and social cohesion, and that is exactly what language lessons often cannot provide. The professionals focus on goals, as for example the stages of the European Framework of Languages, on a supposedly necessary progression in grammar and frequently on the completely irrelevant contents of textbooks. All this cannot lead to an ability to act in the new language, but merely to an accumulation of metalinguistic knowledge.

Furthermore, the role those volunteers are playing is frequently characterised by what I like to call “an equal footing”. I.e. not an attitude, which has paternalistic features and makes the volunteers foster parents, teachers or “dei ex machine”, omnipresent and omnipotent super creatures.

Briefly summarised, we can say: volunteers are to do, what they do best: be communication partners and contact persons.

One more thought on volunteering: volunteering needs structure, which supports those committed persons, since they easily get into situations, which overwhelm them, too. It may be simple things like transferring money from Sweden to Austria, which neither works via a bank, because the people don’t have accounts, nor via institutions like Western Union, because this is too expensive. Thus, the money must be delivered in person. Both sides need security, and that can lead to the volunteer having to show his/her passport to the bearer of the money, which represents a very unsettling situation. (This and the following are true stories). On the other hand, trauma symptoms can suddenly occur, or the people supported start talking about suicide – and who of us would not be overwhelmed by that? Therefore, support structures are an absolute necessity, for the volunteers as well as for the displaced people.

Mutual language exchange

In conclusion, a few thoughts on language work (i.e. rather communication) and multilingualism: I mentioned above that learning German can often also result in a loss of language. In traditional German lessons, teaching is undertaken in German. In “normal” communication, we use any available linguistic means to talk to each other, exchange our stories or solve problems together. And it is this natural communication, which seems to be essential. Just like the principle of reciprocity from language lessons, as I would like to understand it. Though I can also learn new languages, show curiosity or repeat words with a lot of “mistakes” and combine them into simple sentences as a language teacher, I can do that much better as a communication partner.

To me, this reciprocity seems essential, above all in the work with refugees, since in situations, where they explain something, maybe also correct and help, they are in a different situation than in many moments of their current life. They help, they are the experts, the teachers, they have a little power in the communicative situation – and this is what should or rather have to give them.


Busch, Brigitta und Busch, Thomas (2008): Von Menschen, Orten und Sprachen. Multilingual leben in Österreich. Klagenfurt/Celovec: Drava






Thomas Fritz is head of, Institute for Multilingualism, Integration and Education at the Adult Education Centre in Vienna. He has been working as a teacher, trainer and continuing education teacher, lecturer and project manager in adult education for a long time. Thematic focus: multilingualism, basic education, super-diversity and continuing education.



Publication "Sustainable adult education in relation to immigration and asylum".

Photo: (c) OeAD-GmbH/APA-Fotoservice/Hörmandinger

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