ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Millions of people are adapting to unfamiliar languages and cultures to integrate into a whole new society. Language barriers are among the biggest challenges to accessing resources and integrating into a new country. Some migrants have to leave their homes to escape dangerous circumstances while others may leave for studies or work opportunities. The experience of moving to a new country varies depending on the distance traveled, similarities or differences between cultures, rules and regulations of the host country, discrimination and length of stay envisaged.
Helping migrants integrate into their new environment is not as simple as motivating them to learn a language. Breaking down anti-immigration stigmas, facilitating social connections and exposing local people to their new neighbors is equally important. Moreover, since the origins and motivations of migrants are diverse, strategies for welcoming new citizens must be flexible and inclusive.
Country of choice
Refugees fleeing crises such as war or natural disasters in their home country usually move to a neighboring country. The similarities between language and culture can not only facilitate integration, but are also of crucial importance. Refugees lack resources and need more care, often recovering from trauma. About half of all refugees are children.
Due to language barriers, translators and medical professionals have struggled to treat Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Miscommunication can cause doctors to prescribe incorrectly in life-and-death situations. Moreover, victims of sexual violence often lack the words to describe their experiences. These issues can cause Rohingya patients to mistrust their doctors and avoid seeking treatment. In addition, refugees may fail to report health problems because they fear overwhelming their generous hosts.
Most migrants go to high-income countries in search of economic opportunities. In 2012, a Connecticut College student named Vinh Pham traveled to Germany and interviewed migrants and descendants of migrants from Vietnam, Turkey and the former Soviet Union. Pham found various factors influencing their integration into German culture and their struggles with language barriers.
Many Vietnamese migrants came to Germany under a labor program in the 1980s. They decided to stay after their contract expired. With the original intention of returning to Vietnam, it was not as important for these migrants to learn German and integrate into the culture. Also, the differences between German and Vietnamese make it difficult to learn German. These migrants mainly run small restaurants and have a limited knowledge of German for work.
Finally, Turkish migrants have similar experiences to Vietnamese migrants with the added isolation of discrimination due to their Islamic origin. This hostility contributes to the segmentation of Turkish Germans from the rest of the population.
It’s no surprise that learning a country’s official language is essential for getting a job, accessing health care or buying a house. In Europe, many citizens speak English in addition to their native language. The Borgen Project interviewed Carolina from SPEAK, a Portugal-based organization that helps migrants overcome language barriers. She explains why knowledge of the mother tongue is still important for work opportunities and social inclusion.
“Simply switching to another language, for example, during a job interview can seem like an excessive effort to hire someone”, locals prefer not to “make the effort to speak outside their mother tongue”. In countries like Portugal with an aging population, many natives may only know one language.
In many countries, becoming a citizen requires a language or civics test, which is often only offered in national languages. As a result, these tests may discourage immigrants from applying for legal status, especially older immigrants or people with disabilities who cannot learn new languages. Placing the onus on immigrants to learn a new language without involving the wider community reinforces anti-immigrant attitudes.
The community approach of SPEAK
Some countries, such as Germany, will offer free language lessons, which particularly benefit low-income migrants who cannot afford language lessons. In Portugal and around the world, SPEAK is a good example of a community language program that helps migrants feel more welcome and increases their chances of social and financial success.
SPEAK helps groups of locals and migrants to improve each other’s language skills and cultural knowledge. This gives migrants the opportunity to socialize and become part of their community. These relationships help to break down the prejudices that isolate immigrant groups from the native population, thereby reducing generational poverty. SPEAK is present in 25 cities and has more than 45,000 participants. Carolina recommends that governments abandon language exams and sponsor organizations like SPEAK to foster an inclusive and multicultural atmosphere.
Language is an important communication tool. Many people who grew up speaking their country’s official languages may not realize the social and cultural attitudes surrounding the language. These attitudes may exclude people born in other countries or descendants of immigrants. Integrating multilingualism and community building into education could break down language barriers, increase cultural acceptance and provide more economic opportunities for migrants.
– Elise Brehob