Syrian refugees and the need for English language training

posted in: Social innovation | 0

Faced with the unprecedented stream of migrants fleeing war and trauma in the Middle East and North Africa, Europe needs to take clear-sighted action.

The word "English" repeated over and over.
Dr Aaron Ralby
Dr Aaron Ralby

For its part, the UK has agreed to take 20,000 refugees, a significant portion of whom will likely be children and orphans according to reports[1]. One key aspect in ensuring their smooth settlement in the UK will be providing these refugees with language training.

Many Syrians are well-educated and many speak fluent English. Others, however, do not speak English well enough to function professionally within the UK. The issue of language is so fundamental to our lives that we often overlook it.

I have witnessed several multi-million pound training contracts fail to be delivered on account of not addressing the language barrier. All the goodwill, financial backing, and technical expertise to deliver needed medical, economic, military, engineering, or navigational training may be present; but unless there is a shared language in which to impart that knowledge, little will be accomplished.

They’ll just pick it up, right?

One of the biggest misconceptions about language is that if you “just go to the country,” you’ll pick it up. Many people believe that immersion will guarantee fluency; yet you may well know several immigrants who have been in this country for years and still only speak broken English. You might also know dozens of expats in various countries across the world who have failed to pick up the local languages of their host countries. Why would you – or a Syrian refugee – be any different? Training and effort are both necessary.

Though not a guarantee of fluency, immersion is a wonderful opportunity. The first issue we need to address with respect to refugees is ensuring that those who come will actually be immersed. That is, that they will be welcomed as part of larger communities, and not simply join communities of other refugees or other Arabic-speakers. This is essential. It is easy to go to another country and not actually experience immersion.

Immersion is just an opportunity, however, and in order to take full advantage of it, training and education are required. In terms of refugees, we need to consider options for the provision of language training, whether by self-study, classroom instruction, private tuition, or some combination of the three.

How much will it cost?

It’s a question that often gets asked before the scale of need or specifics of requirements have been properly assessed; indeed, it is sometimes the first question to come up when discussing provision of training of any kind: how much will it cost? Before dissecting the actual language requirements further, let’s get a sense for how expensive this undertaking could be.

Consider 20,000 immigrants. Let’s say half of them are already fluent in English. That leaves 10,000 who will need some form of training. To give a sense of the scale of this issue, let’s take an oversimplified view for the moment and say that putting all 10,000 people through the same 12-week programme will do the trick.

Depending on the venue and hours of study per week, fees for 12 weeks of English training can vary from roughly £2,000 – £3,250 (or more). Let’s say we put students through a full-time course in the middle of the price range. If half of UK-accepted refugees did only one 12-week course in English, that would still cost about £25 million.

This is a lot of money, but even this sum only accounts for the most reductive, one-size-fits-all delivery of training. It does not account for differences in age, level of starting ability, application-specific language training, geography and logistics within the UK, personal schedules, and timings of delivery over the next five years. Language training involves people, and as such it must be tailored to individual requirements.

Shaping the requirement

Of those who require English training, some will need more help than others. Children going to school will need different training from adults looking for work. Some will be able to converse already but not write; others will be able to write, but not converse. Some will perhaps have learned technical English related to their particular field, while others will only know daily courtesies.

Many refugees will ultimately need to take several courses. In order to qualify for a number of professional positions, non-native speakers of English need to pass the IELTS or other examination at a certain level. Students must prepare specifically for these examinations, and preparatory courses are often considerably more expensive than general English classes. This doesn’t necessarily include the fees required to register and sit the exams themselves.

The array of needs is staggering. In truth, every language learner has a different set of learning objectives, and will require different training to meet those objectives. Coordinating the actual needs with providers in different regions and accounting for different personal schedules and start dates is a significant challenge. It is, however, a challenge that must be addressed immediately, as proficiency in English will be a key enabler of success for refugees in this country.

Potential solution

The UK government has stated that it will primarily choose the refugees it takes from among those in camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. From what I gather from visitors to these camps, aside from shortages of supplies and food, there is a painful shortage of activity. There is nothing to do.

Life in a refugee camp is a bleak prospect, and the reality is that hundreds of thousands of people will continue to live in these camps for years to come. One of the best things we could collectively do for refugees in camps is provide them with language training. It would accomplish several important objectives:

  • Provide an internationally recognisable and useful skill.
  • Open doors to other forms of training delivered in English, from engineering to medicine to IT.
  • Smooth the transition to living in English-speaking countries.
  • Provide respite from boredom and give hope.

Through train-the-trainer programs, it is possible to establish English language training in refugee camps that would be delivered primarily by English-speaking refugees themselves. A full-scale trial with the Libyan military two years ago demonstrated that such a model can provide training that outperforms traditional classroom instruction delivered by native speakers.

With local facilitators and the right materials, refugees could be trained now while concentrated geographically and with greater flexibility in schedule. Such a model would also come in at a fraction of the total cost of delivering training in the UK. While organisations like the British Council and UNICEF are certainly working to address the need for education in the region[2]; the scale of demand is truly phenomenal. It will require solutions that go beyond our traditional models of language training.

Dr Aaron Ralby is founder and CEO of Linguisticator, a Cambridge-based language training development company. Linguisticator’s English programme, ELT Tiger, was developed with sponsorship from the UK Ministry of Defence and trialed successfully in Libya with the Libyan military. It is specially designed for speakers of Arabic and for delivery in remote or complex environments.


[1] (

Aaron Ralby

Aaron Ralby

Aaron Ralby

Latest posts by Aaron Ralby (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.