Frequently asked questions concerning the linguistic integration of migrants
These Frequently Asked Questions address issues of general interest to all those concerned with language education and testing. The answers draw on Council of Europe principles, guidelines, studies and tools but also on wider resources.
Please also consult the section on “Key-terms” which offers a number of short texts discussing various issues, including many of those covered in the FAQs below
Does the Council of Europe have a policy regarding the linguistic integration of adult migrants?
The Council of Europe does not have a policy regarding the linguistic integration of adult migrants, but it has developed principles to guide the development and implementation of policy in this domain.
Member states must decide whether or not to attach language requirements to immigration (the granting of entry visas, residence permits, and citizenship); if they impose language requirements, they must decide whether or not to provide courses to help intending immigrants meet those requirements; if they provide courses, they must decide how they are funded; and if they assess immigrants’ language proficiency, they must decide what happens to those who fail to meet the requirements.
When member states take these and related decisions, they have shared fundamental values to guide them– human rights, democracy and the rule of law – and a common concern to promote social inclusion, social cohesion and respect for diversity. In the Declaration issued by the Third Summit of Heads of State and Government (May 2005) Europe’s leaders committed themselves to ensuring that cultural diversity becomes a source of mutual enrichment, to protecting the rights of national minorities, and to securing the free movement of persons. The Declaration includes the following statements: “We are determined to build cohesive societies by ensuring fair access to social rights, fighting exclusion and protecting vulnerable social groups. … We are resolved to strengthen the cohesion of our societies in its social, educational, health and cultural dimensions.”
The situation of migrants is addressed in a number of Council of Europe conventions, recommendations, resolutions and reports. A digest of those that specifically address linguistic integration is available on this website (see Official Texts).
It seems natural and necessary that migrants should learn the language of their host country – why is there a debate ?
The debate is not about whether or not migrants benefit from learning the language of their host society: clearly they do. It is rather about whether or not migrants should be obliged to learn the language; whether or not they should demonstrate that they have done so by passing a test; whether financial responsibility for providing language programmes for migrants should lie with the receiving country or with the migrants themselves; whether attendance at a language course should be optional or obligatory; whether time limits should be imposed on the fulfilment of language requirements, and if so what kind of time limit; and whether sanctions should be imposed on migrants who fail to meet the host country’s language requirements, and if so why, and what kind of sanctions (bearing in mind the dangers of disproportionate actions).
It is important to point out that it is possible to live in a country without speaking the language of the majority of the population. Citizens of EU member states, for example, can move freely to other member states without meeting a language requirement. Also, when a migrant is joining members of his or her family who are already proficient in the language of the host country, they can provide linguistic support in the form of translations and explanations in their home language.
What is the role of language in integration?
Language is central to our personal and social identities. Our name, the family we belong to, our cultural and religious values are all to a greater or lesser extent bound to language, usually our home language(s) or mother tongue. Membership of social groups and participation in the life of the local community and society at large usually depends on a common language. When people do not speak the language of the society in which they live, this may restrict their ability to participate and limit their sense of belonging.
At the same time, it is important to recognise that participation in community life and the ability to understand the society of which one is a member are not wholly dependent on proficiency in the language of the majority population. The rules and values of their new country can be mediated to newly arrived migrants by other speakers of their native language and through translation and interpretation, which is offered in several member states. Especially in the early stages this is likely to do more to promote their integration than information communicated to them in a language they are just beginning to learn.
Is the proficiency that migrants achieve in the language of their host country a reliable indicator of their integration?
The Council of Europe defines integration as a two-way process: migrants have to play their part (for example by learning the language of the host country), but the host country also has responsibilities (such as not restricting access to the labour market, avoiding discrimination etc., cf. European Social Charter) and encouraging acceptance of social and cultural differences. If integration is defined in this way, language is only one element in the process.
Migrants who have learned the language of their host country may be regarded as „integrated“ in so far as they are able to participate actively in the life of the community (assuming the community accepts and supports this) and are successful in their jobs or studies. However, somebody whose proficiency in the language of the host country is very modest may also function effectively. Not everybody is a good language learner, not everybody lives in circumstances which facilitate successful language learning, and there are many dimensions of life that do not depend on language.
In this regard it is worth pointing out that the language skills of native citizens range from illiterate to highly competent, but they all enjoy the same civil rights.
Language is an instrument in the integration process, not an indicator of how successful this process is. There is no scientific evidence to show that a given level of linguistic competence can be used as a measure of integration. Indeed, the fact that problems of integration arise among citizens of a given country who are native users of the same language seems to indicate that language is not the key issue.
What level of proficiency do migrants need in the language of their host country?
There is no single answer to this question (see also Question 4). Some migrants need to develop a relatively limited range of listening, reading and speaking skills so that they can engage in everyday activities – shopping, carrying out simple transactions in post offices and banks, interacting with officials, coping with communication in the workplace, school staff, medical care, etc. Others may need to develop advanced speaking and writing skills because they are qualified for a job that requires them to give oral presentations, keep detailed written records, write letters and reports, and so on. If a single language requirement is imposed on all migrants it is likely to demand too much of some and not enough of others. Ideally, those responsible for designing and delivering language programmes for migrants should carry out a detailed needs analysis that takes account of as many different migrant profiles as possible. They should then offer multiple learning pathways so that migrants can fulfil their individual needs, which are likely to evolve as their language proficiency develops. It is also necessary to take account of the diversity of migrant populations as regards language of origin, culture and ethnicity, previous educational experience, level of literacy in their language of origin, and existing level of proficiency in the language of the host country (by no means all migrants are beginners). These and other factors interact with migrants’ needs to determine the levels of proficiency it is reasonable to expect them individually to achieve in a given period of time.
Do sanctions or incentives motivate migrants to attend courses and learn the language of their host country?
Various incentives are often used to encourage migrants to attend language courses and make every effort to learn the language of their host country. For example, courses may be offered free of charge, childcare may be provided, and receipt of social benefits may depend on regular attendance. Incentives may also be attached to language tests. If migrants have to pay for their language course, for instance, they may be granted a partial refund if they pass the test at the end. Other possible incentives include easier access to the labour market, voting rights in local and regional elections, and a shorter waiting time to apply for permanent residence or citizenship. But the immediate reward of gaining an entry visa or residence permit is usually thought to be the biggest incentive of all.
When failing a test means that these rewards are not available, it is sometimes argued that this too is a powerful incentive. But the threat of sanctions can only increase the insecurity that already characterizes migrants’ situation, and it is well known that a high level of anxiety is likely to impede learning. Research into learning motivation tends to show that achieving one’s learning goals is the best way of sustaining motivation: nothing succeeds like success. If migrants are to succeed in their language learning, they must be given manageable learning objectives and their courses must help them to develop communication skills that they can put to immediate use. This is difficult to achieve if everything depends on passing a test, because then learners and their teachers naturally concentrate on the test, and learning a language in order to pass a test is very different from learning a language to cope with everyday life.
Some countries require migrants to pass a language test before granting them an entry visa. What are the benefits of such tests?
The argument usually advanced in favour of pre-entry language tests is that they ensure that migrants arrive in their host country with a minimum level of proficiency and have demonstrated their commitment to linguistic integration. However, it is not always possible for migrants to prepare themselves adequately for such a test, and taking it may require them to travel long distances to test centres. In addition, it may well be impossible for them to organise their own language training for financial, social, educational or even geographical reasons. Also, unless they are issued with an entry visa soon after they pass the test, they may forget most of the language they have learned by the time they get to their host country as they are unlikely to be using it before departure.
Should countries offer adult migrants courses that are tailored to their particular needs?
Why should language programmes for adult migrants be financed from public resources?
Conventions of the Council of Europe and Resolutions and Recommendations of the Committee of Ministers state that it is the responsibility of the host country to help migrants of all ages to learn the language of their host country. For example, signatories of the European Social Charter undertake “to promote and facilitate the teaching of the national language of the receiving state or, if there are several, one of those languages to migrant workers and their families” (Article 19/11). This responsibility derives from a concern to protect migrants’ human rights. Another reason for funding language programmes for migrants from the public purse is that it makes social and economic sense to do so: the better migrants’ proficiency in the language of their host country, the greater their potential contribution to social cohesion and the national economy.
Does setting a specific language requirement lead to better integration?
In general there is insufficient evidence to support the claim that setting language requirements leads to better integration. Evaluation studies of language programmes for adult migrants tend to show that those migrants who have neither financial nor learning problems and meet all the requirements react very positively. On the other hand, migrants surveyed some years after attending language classes have been reported as saying that they do not need, and thus do not use, the language they were taught. There is little information about those who do not meet the requirements and fail the test, but studies show that the levels of proficiency required of migrants with little previous formal learning experience are usually too high to be achieved in the time allowed. It should be noted that if language programmes for adult migrants are provided in isolation from the rest of adult education, they tend to obstruct rather than facilitate migrants’ social participation.
Do the languages that migrants bring with them have any role to play other than in the private domain?
The language we first learnt as a child is an essential part of our personality and identity, the medium of communication in which we feel most comfortable and competent, and the basis on which we learn other languages. To suppress or forbid the use of migrants’ first languages infringes a basic human right; it is also likely to hinder their learning of the language of their host country. Because of the linguistic heterogeneity of migrant populations it is rarely possible to offer bilingual language programmes in which access to the new language is partly channelled through migrants’ first languages. But every effort should be made to show adult migrants that the languages they bring with them are a valuable resource that enhances the linguistic and cultural capital of their host country, and to encourage them to maintain these languages.
Migrants often tend to mix several languages. Does this impede their progress in the new language?
The different languages a person has learned already (mother tongue, other languages in the family, languages learned in school, languages acquired during migration) do not exist in separate compartments of the brain. Nobody can stop his or her brain from comparing and mixing languages: code switching and language mixing are natural processes. Usually they indicate that somebody is eager to say (or write) something and is using of all his/her linguistic resources in order to do so. In most situations it is much more important that somebody can express what he or she wants to express, even if it is grammatically incorrect or languages are mixed. The ‘correct’ way of expressing it can be established afterwards. If we insist on correctness from the very beginning, language learners may prefer to remain silent.