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Opening remarks at launch event: Language Support for Adult Refugees: a Council of Europe Toolkit

Strasbourg 22 November 2017
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Language support for adult refugees: a Council of Europe toolkit

C´est un grand plaisir pour moi d´être ici avec vous pour le lancement de la boite à outils du Conseil de l´Europe sur l´accompagnement linguistique des réfugiés adultes.

Pendant mes missions d´information au cours des derniers 18 mois j´ai eu l´occasion de rencontrer beaucoup de migrants et de réfugiés de différents horizons. Pendant les discussions que j’ai eues avec eux, la question de l´apprentissage des langues a été soulevée à maintes reprises. J´ai vu et j´ai entendu moi-même la différence que cela engendre, quand les migrants sont capables de comprendre et de parler la langue du pays d´accueil.

Comme Nelson Mandela a dit, je cite: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. And it is this specific organ in the human body which can make a difference when it comes to the attitude to the reception/acceptance of migrants and refugees.

Learning the local language is, of course, a benefit in itself for migrants in terms of their resulting ability to communicate with those around them. But its benefits extend beyond the simple advantages of communication.

Proficiency in the local language facilitates migrants’ access to key services – including health care and education – by enhancing their capacity to learn about their rights and by making it possible for them to engage directly with service providers.

It allows them to seek employment which is relevant to their qualifications and background.

It enables them to participate more effectively and directly in administrative procedures affecting them, including asylum procedures.

And it is plain that without some knowledge of the local language, migrants will find it very hard to integrate into their host societies.

In short, language is the key which opens many doors to migrants who would otherwise be left feeling isolated and unsupported. It brings confidence – to interact with communities, to assert rights and to take advantage of available opportunities.

While we can all agree on the importance of giving migrants the chance to learn the local language, it is not always easy to identify practical ways to achieve this. Measures which do not require significant infrastructure or financial resources are in short supply.

The language support toolkit being launched today is an excellent example of a straightforward, practical solution which can be easily rolled out in a number of CoE member States and which has the potential to materially improve opportunities for language learning by migrants in their host countries.

In the first place, the resources provided will enable language facilitators to tailor their support to the particular needs of the migrants and refugees they are working with. It is important to remember that this is a resource directed at volunteer tutors, who do not necessarily have much experience of providing language support, let alone assisting non-European migrants with language learning. The diversity of migrant groups – in terms of language of origin and culture – poses challenges to delivering the necessary support. Some of these challenges are obvious: the need for many migrants to learn a new alphabet, for example. However, other difficulties may be overlooked or underestimated.

I was very struck by one of the activities in the toolkit, which invites the reader, in a first exercise, to try and read texts written in different alphabets and, in a second exercise, to complete a written form by writing backwards – from right to left instead of from left to right. These simple examples really brought home to me how it must feel for migrants arriving in Europe trying to understand how to approach an unfamiliar language and alphabet.

And this is only one small example of the impressive resources included in the 57 tools which the language toolkit offers.

Through its clear guidance and the many practical examples it offers, the toolkit gives volunteers working with migrants the resources to understand migrants’ language needs, plan their language support and deliver effective linguistic assistance.

I am also optimistic that the availability of this resource will encourage more organisations and even state actors, such as municipalities, to engage in this field and offer language support to migrants.

I should add that while I have emphasised the importance of the toolkit in assisting migrants to learn the host country language, the use of the toolkit is not limited in this way. It can of course also be used to assist migrants who wish to learn one of the seven languages it covers no matter what country they live in.

One final point I would like to make: this toolkit is aimed at adults. But I understand that our colleagues in the Education Department are already planning to adapt it to make it more suitable for use with children. The critical importance of linguistic support for children to integrate effectively into local education systems is a matter that I have consistently raised in the reports on my fact-finding missions. Adapting the language toolkit to make it even more useful for supporting children is consistent with the objectives set out in the Council of Europe’s Action Plan on Protecting Refugee and Migrant Children.

All that remains is for me to congratulate once again all of those who have worked on this unique and invaluable tool, and assure them of my full support in their future initiatives in this area.

 

 


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