Connecting New Scots – The Importance of Languages

Post by Eva Hanna

With the recent launch of the New Scots Connect, which establishes a Scotland-wide network of local communities, groups, and organisations to enhance the welcoming environment for refugees, we had an opportunity to reflect on the Bilingualism Matters event that was part of the Scottish Refugee Festival in June 2018.

The event, entitled “Are Refugee Languages Welcome? The Critical Role of Refugee Languages in Integration“, explored how we can enhance the welcoming environment for refugees, specifically in relation to issues around languages. Professor Antonella Sorace, Founding Director of Bilingualism Matters, opened with a talk on the importance of supporting bilingualism in communities in general, and in refugee communities in particular. This was followed by several refugee speakers who shared testimonials regarding the role their home/first languages have played in supporting them to learn English and to integrate into Scottish society.

As an example of good practice in Edinburgh’s community, the event showcased the Teenage Syrian Refugee Tutoring Project, co-founded by Dr Amer Masri and Nadin Akta, and hosted by the Edinburgh University Chaplaincy. The speakers described how university student volunteers were recruited to tutor local Syrian teens, often using the students’ first language, Arabic. Nadin Akta explained the advantages of using the familiar language as a bridge to learning normal high school subjects in English and Dr Masri pointed out the mutual benefit to the tutors themselves in using their first language with tutees. Another speaker, a refugee mother and MSc TESOL student, described the importance of being able to find books in Arabic at local libraries to read with her young daughter, as well as the nursery’s efforts to acknowledge and celebrate their and other’s families’ home languages, e.g. through displaying signs saying ‘hello’, ‘welcome’, and other familiar words around for children and their parents to see. 

Following on from this, Dr Katerina Strani from Heriot-Watt University introduced the Moving Languages App, which has been designed to help new migrants learn the host language(s), and also aims to encourage people to learn other languages and promote understanding between cultures.

The work of the Refugee Survival Trust was introduced by Agatha KaiKai. The volunteer-led charity provides grants to asylum claimants and refugees living in Scotland.

Many event attendees and speakers highlighted the very urgent need for a local Arabic school for children to maintain speaking, reading, and writing in the home language. This school, they said, should be mostly secular and not affiliated with a particular Arabic-speaking country, i.e. similar to other existing schools around Edinburgh teaching Mandarin, Spanish, Greek, etc. Furthermore, Dr Masri emphasised that trained educators should be recruited and that their teaching should reflect and parallel the pedagogy of Scottish primary and secondary schools. The Refugee Working Group reiterated their happiness to support the efforts to establish such a school by helping to connect the interested parties within its networks.

Another interesting theme that arose from comments from the audience was that not all home languages are equally welcome in public, with several people pointing out that a mother speaking Arabic or Swahili to her children on the bus is not received in the same way as a mother speaking a higher prestige language. One mother described being told off by an English speaker for speaking to her child in Arabic.  

We hope the New Scots Connect network will provide a way to share experiences and knowledge across organisations and communities, to help shape an environment where all languages are welcomed and respected for the value they bring to families and communities. Bilingualism Matters looks forward to being a part of this important initiative.

The next Scottish Refugee Festival dates are Thursday 20th to Sunday 30th June 2019. Submissions are OPEN until 17th March 2019! This year’s theme is ‘Making Art, Making Home’. Get creating! #RefugeeFestScot More info: 

Related post: Celebrating International Mother Language Day: Refugee Languages Welcome!