For the past ten years, the Syrian refugee crisis has been one of the largest refugee crises in the world. European countries host more than one million Syrian refugees, with Germany and Sweden together hosting over seventy percent (70%). Each European host country has its own process of integrating Syrian refugee children into their educational system, but refugee children across Europe face critical language barriers that threaten their educational success. This article examines the challenges Syrian refugee children face in accessing second language instruction in Europe. It argues that European host countries need to provide more long-term, individualized language programs for refugee children.
Addressing language barriers in learning is a critical step towards achieving equitable education systems around the world. The UN’s fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education” and promoting “lifelong learning opportunities for all.” In order to provide “inclusive” quality education for refugees, host countries must ensure they provide students with the resources to understand the instructional language. When refugee children do not understand the language of instruction in their host country, teachers tend to place them in lower grades than the grade they were in their home countries. This procedure often motivates students to not enroll in school past the compulsory grades, or even to drop out. Not receiving a secondary or post-secondary education can in turn limit their future job opportunities and their ability to support their families.
Research indicates that effective language support for refugees requires long-term intervention from the period of a child’s reception in the host country, through the child’s progression in school. Children lose their neural plasticity with age, so the older the child, the more important individualized language support is. Moreover, the accessibility of second language instruction varies across Europe. There are no centralized recommendations for how host countries should assess and monitor refugee children’s language skills. This means that the educational success of refugee children may vary drastically depending on what country takes them in.
In Greece for example, there are compulsory Greek language classes for refugee children in reception centers and some after-school programs but not in schools. The teachers in reception centers are only trained in teaching Greek to Greek speakers, not as a second language, which makes these classes difficult for students to understand. Teachers in Greek reception centers also do not assess children’s language skills, which makes it difficult to develop individualized language learning plans for refugee students.
A more intensive model of second language instruction is evident in Germany, the European country that hosts the most Syrian refugees. Refugee children in Germany attend classes in the German language and curriculum for one to two years before attending classes with students from Germany. However, German schools are not required to provide German as second language classes. This means that once a refugee child starts attending a German school, their access to language learning depends entirely on the resources in that particular school. Recent research also suggests that training for ‘German as a Second Language’ teachers is insufficient and as a result, a great deal of second language instruction in German schools is ineffective. This issue highlights how investing in training and resources for second language instructors is a key element to consider when developing language instruction programs for refugee children.
The most promising model of second language support for refugee children is in Sweden, the European country with the second largest population of Syrian refugees. State organizations and civil society organizations offer preparatory language classes to refugees as soon as they arrive.
Headteachers assess all new students’ language skills and Swedish as a second language class is available in all public schools. The process provides refugee children with continuous access to second language instruction and multilingual assistance.
While Sweden’s organized approach to second-language instruction is promising, Europe still has a long way to go in ensuring inclusive education for Syrian refugees. Evidence from Germany and Greece suggests that in order for refugee education to be inclusive and effective, training for second language teachers needs to be more comprehensive and all public schools need to develop some form of a second language instructional program. Host countries also need to develop more formal assessment procedures for refugee students rather than expecting them to catch up to their peers in a foreign language.