The EBSN Annual Conference 2017 will consider the role of basic skills in integration. We know that learning of the host language plays a key role in the social integration of adult migrants. I have written previously on EPALE about the ‘social turn’ in language learning with a move from descriptions of language learning as a purely cognitive process, taking place inside our heads, to an understanding that, as language is a social phenomenon which we use to make meaning in interaction with others in social contexts, language learning should also be thought of as a social, rather than an individual process. Recognition of the socio-cultural nature of language learning encourages us to develop models of language learning that go beyond the classroom and support adult migrants in developing the language that they need to engage in the sociocultural practices that are important to them.
The easiest way for us to imagine how to support adult migrants in learning the language of the host community, the default option, is through the lens of formal language learning, with a teacher in charge of a classroom of learners working through a specific programme of learning. However, not only are resources too stretched to be able to massively expand such education provision to meet the needs of adult migrants, but such provision is unlikely to be suitable for such a diverse group; each individual will have different needs and will be acting under different constraints. Formal classroom language learning has an important role to play in supporting language acquisition, but language learning does not only happen as a direct result of language teaching. Much learning of the host language takes place informally through engagement with the demands of daily life.
Indeed, theories of language socialisation suggest that migrants are integrated into their new community through their use of the language of that community and that interaction with the host community is beneficial to their development of proficiency in the host language. This language use can take place in a range of public spaces, such as parks and shopping centres, schools and public transport, but also in official spaces such as those in which migrants engage with government social services representatives or look for work and in more private spaces with neighbours or in the workplace. However, recent research with groups of refugees in England has shown that while better language skills lead to more contact with the host community and more contact leads to greater well-being among the refugees, the reverse is not true. That is, just because refugees come into contact with the host community if they do not have the necessary language skills that contact will be less meaningful and will have limited impact on the development of their language skills and on their sense of integration and well-being.
I am currently engaged in work with partners in the Netherlands, Denmark and Slovenia to identify ways in which volunteers can be better engaged in supporting the language learning and social integration of migrants. We have identified migrant language learning activity in traditional formal and non-formal education domains, but we also saw a great deal of activity that can best be described as social: cooking clubs, drop in cafes, gardening groups, one to one help with forms/official letters etc. Such activity often has a cultural focus with visits to local places of interest, explanations of local holidays and customs. These types of activity do not have an explicit language-learning goal, but they provide opportunities for migrants to use the host language in an authentic, supportive environment.
To design interventions to support language learning for adult migrants we need to look beyond the paradigm of the formal language-learning classroom, and recognise that there are other ways to support language acquisition. There is no single linear path to acquisition of the host language for adult migrants. An ideal learning pathway is likely to involve an adult migrant engaging in a combination of activities in the, formal, non-formal and social domains in any one period. Rather than replicating a formal model of language learning we should create opportunities for language use alongside and in support of that formal language learning.
I look forward to learning about ways in which language learning for adult migrants is supported in your country during the EBSN EPALE online discussion on 18th and 19th May.
David Mallows has 30 years experience in adult education as a teacher, teacher trainer, manager and researcher. He was previously Director of Research at the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (NRDC) at the UCL Institute of Education, London and currently represents the European Basic Skills Network in EPALE as thematic coordinator for Life Skills.