The report, Language for Resilience, also points out a delicate balance between the importance of language skills as a tool for social integration among refugees and the need to develop the refugees’ home language in order to maintain a sense of belonging.
Focusing on Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the report aims to inform humanitarian agencies, donors and governments on how to improve the nature, quality and scale of language teaching and learning as a key response to working with refugees and host communities.
“Any language opens doors to new cultures, new opportunities, extra money, and study”
Looking at the impact of language on refugees and host communities affected by the refugee crisis, it found language needs are specific to each country.
In Jordan, for example, English proficiency is important for higher education, while in Turkey, Syrian refugees should learn Turkish to access education in the country.
And as the demand for language grows in the Kurdistan region of Iraq alongside the influx of newcomers, the country needs wide-scale teacher education programmes the report says. Meanwhile, Lebanon requires strengthened training and educational institutions in order to meet the growing need.
The report argues that if Syrian refugees are proficient in the right additional languages, they will have new opportunities for education and employment.
“Vulnerability lies in not having enough English or French skills to access English or French-medium mainstream schools in Lebanon or degree programmes in all four countries where classes are taught in English for certain subjects,” it says.
Higher education specifically requires that young Syrian refugees have language skills.
“Any language opens doors to new cultures, new opportunities, extra money, and study,” observed one Syrian refugee, interviewed for the report.
In addition to accessing further study, Syrian refugees also need language proficiency to unlock professional opportunities to communicate with international colleagues or participate in international forums.
The challenge here, the report points out, is providing the access to niche English vocabulary required by specialist groups.
“When living in exile, refugees can easily become isolated and distanced from their hosts”
The deficit in niche language skills among refugees reveals an increased need for programmes in English for Specific Purposes.
It also recommends language courses are created for those who have dropped out of education, as well as language preparatory courses for refugees transitioning from secondary education into higher education.
In addition to widening the scope for academic and employment pursuits, Amin Awad, UNHCR Middle East and North Africa bureau director, said language instruction builds a bridge between communities.
“When living in exile, refugees can easily become isolated and distanced from their hosts,” he said in the report’s foreword.
“But when communication channels are supported, disputes and conflicts can be mitigated, promoting social networks, peaceful coexistence and healthy dialogue.”