Primary School Language Education Programs for Migrants in Europe


SEATTLE — Primary school language education programs for migrants in Europe continue despite political and social backlash from EU member states against the migrant crisis. The education of young migrants is important to both the European Union as a political entity and the individual member states.

Studies by the RAND Corporation in conjunction with the European Union, along with independent studies conducted by the European Union, show that migrant children and descendants of migrants are twice as likely to leave school early. This is attributed to the language barrier the students face in their new country. The language barrier also hinders social integration, which is an important issue for many who are against migrants settling in their nation. This combination of issues has led many countries with higher immigrant ratios to enact laws and programs to increase primary school language education programs for migrants.

Austria Expands Its Language Education Programs for Migrants

Austria has settled a large number of migrants compared to its population. According to the BBC, more than 90,000 people applied for asylum in Austria in 2015, a number equal to more than 1 percent of the country’s population. In a move condemned by the European Union, Austria’s far-right government voted to cut a portion of an asylum seeker’s benefits if that person cannot pass a German test. However, the Austrian government has also instituted education reforms to increase migrant children’s ability to learn German and integrate. These reforms include specialized training for teachers, increased cooperation between migrant parents and schools and expanded early language education to give migrant children a head start when they begin school.

Welcome Classes in Germany Help Integrate Migrant Children

In Germany, there are more than 400,000 migrant children enrolled in primary school. Primary school language education programs for migrants are important and considered a “national task”. Due to the German national policy of integration, migrant students are put into classrooms with other German students. However, there is often not enough room for all the students, and their German skills are not good enough to keep up with the teachings. To address these issues, German primary schools in Berlin host “welcome classes” for migrant children who cannot fit into normal primary school classes where they can practice German without any pressure. Simple exercises help them learn vocabulary and grammar.

The most important part of these classes is allowing the children to use their experiences in their country of origin to learn the language. In one class, a young Iranian boy and his classmates debated in German whether or not a goat or other animals can swim. The young boy was able to communicate in German to the other migrant children that in Iran he saw goats swim all the time.

Education representatives from other German states visit Berlin to learn from these welcome classes and see how students benefit from being introduced to German culture. Angelika Ohl, an elementary school teacher, told DW that a student’s success should not be measured by how well they speak German but by how well they and their family are integrated into German culture.

Italy Introduces New Skills-Based Language and Integration Program

In 2017, Italy introduced its first migrant integration program, a surprise since Italy has been burdened heavily by the migrant crisis due to EU laws and its geographical location. This plan calls for primary school language education programs and Italian cultural integration. Migrants who do not speak Italian will be encouraged to enroll in Italian classes, and children under 18 must be enrolled in the Italian school system. Testing will also be available to migrants to test their Italian abilities and general education so that their education in their home country is recognized and they are placed in language classes that fit their level of fluency.

In 2014, 91.5 percent of children who arrived as migrants in Italy were unaccompanied by an adult. This is why their education is so important. Once they leave the classroom, they are ill-prepared to live in their new home and the government is struggling to keep up. Although learning Italian and about Italian culture will not solve all of the problems for these children, it will help to alleviate some issues.

Sweden Includes Migrant Children in Its Early Childhood Education Programs

Sweden is dedicated to providing primary school language education programs for migrants. Sweden offers preschool education for all children over the age of one while their parents are working. Once they reach the age of three, children are allowed 15 hours of preschool education per week without a fee. It is beneficial for migrant students to attend these classes to get a head start in learning Swedish and to socialize with Swedish children their own age. This right is extended to asylum seekers working in Sweden. Their children are also granted the right to attend other educational institutions like their Swede counterparts.

The European Union is doing its part in many ways. Promoting dialog between nations who are challenged by the influx of migrants allows them to share ideas and find new solutions; two major peer learning conferences took place in Sweden and Germany in 2016 to further this goal. The education funding granted by the European Commission helps as well. With a light but precise touch, the EU can continue to influence positive policy towards primary school language education programs for migrants in Europe. As the political landscape of Europe changes, the hope is that level-headed policy will continue to prevail. 

– Nick DeMarco

Photo: Flickr


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