ANN ARBOR, Michigan — Millions of people adapt to unfamiliar languages and cultures to integrate into a brand new society. Language barriers are some of the biggest challenges to accessing resources and fitting into a new country. Some migrants must leave their homes to escape dangerous circumstances while others might leave for education 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 in the host country, discrimination and the person’s intended length of stay.
Helping migrants integrate into their new environments is not just as simple as motivating them to learn a language. Breaking down anti-immigration stigmas, facilitating social connections and exposing local populations to their new neighbors is just as important. Furthermore, since migrants’ backgrounds and motivations 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 countries usually move to a neighboring nation. Similarities between language and culture can not only make integration easier but are also crucially important. Refugees lack resources and are in greater need of care, often recovering from trauma. Around half of all refugees are children.
Due to language barriers, translators and medical professionals have had difficulty getting care to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who are fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Miscommunication can cause doctors to make incorrect prescriptions in life-and-death situations. Additionally, victims of sexual violence often lack the words to describe their experiences. These issues can lead Rohingya patients to distrust their doctors and avoid seeking medical care. Furthermore, refugees may fail to report health problems because they fear burdening their generous hosts.
Most migrants travel to high-income nations in search of economic opportunity. In 2012, a Connecticut College student named Vinh Pham traveled to Germany and interviewed migrants and migrant descendants 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 as part of a worker’s program in the 1980s. They decided to stay after their contracts expired. With the initial intention of moving back to Vietnam, it was not as important for these migrants to learn German and integrate into the culture. In addition, the differences between German and Vietnamese make learning German difficult. These migrants primarily run small restaurants and know limited German for work.
Lastly, 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 is no surprise that learning a nation’s official language is essential for getting a job, accessing healthcare or purchasing a home. In Europe, many citizens speak English in addition to their nation’s mother tongue. The Borgen Project interviewed Carolina from SPEAK, a Portugal-based organization that helps migrants overcome language barriers. She explains why knowing the native language is still significant for work opportunities and social inclusion.
“The small act of switching to a different language in, for example, a job interview may seem like too much of an effort just to hire someone,” Locals prefer not to “make the effort of speaking outside of their native language.” In countries like Portugal with an aging population, many natives might only know one language.
In many nations, becoming a citizen requires a language or a civics test, which are often only offered in the national languages. As a result, these tests can discourage immigrants from applying for legal status, especially older immigrants or those with disabilities who cannot learn new languages. Placing the burden on immigrants to learn a new language without engaging the larger community reinforces anti-immigrant attitudes.
SPEAK’s Community-Based Approach
Some countries, like Germany, will offer free language courses, which especially benefit low-income migrants who can’t afford language classes. In Portugal and around the world, SPEAK provides a good example of a community-based language program that helps migrants feel more welcome and increases their chances of social and financial success.
SPEAK facilitates groups of locals and migrants to improve each other’s language abilities and cultural knowledge. This provides migrants an opportunity to make social connections and become a part of their community. These relationships help break down prejudices that isolate immigrant groups from the native population, reducing generational poverty. SPEAK has a presence in 25 cities and includes more than 45,000 participants. Carolina recommends that governments ditch language exams and sponsor organizations like SPEAK to foster an inclusive, multicultural atmosphere.
Language is an important communication tool. Many people who grew up speaking the official languages of their nation may not realize the social and cultural attitudes surrounding language. These attitudes can 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 bring more economic opportunities to migrants.
– Elise Brehob