Celebrating International Mother Language Day: Refugee Languages Welcome!


Post by Eva Hanna & Eva-maria Schnelten

Imagine you are forced to leave your country with only what you can carry. You leave extended family, friends, and community behind, not knowing when you will see them again – if ever. You travel a perilous and uncertain journey, stalled along the way in refugee camps, waiting to learn where you and your children will be settled.

Now imagine you arrive in new country with a completely different culture and climate. The locals are mostly warm and welcoming and help you to learn their language. Your children begin school and receive support in learning to speak, read, and write; however, you notice that they are beginning to respond to you in the new language. One day at pick-up, the nursery teacher mentions that it might be better for you to use the school’s language at home. Though you are not very confident in the new language yourself, you want to do the best for your children. But the suggestion still pains you.

One of the very few things you brought here with you is your language. It is the link to your homeland, and everything and everyone dear to you; the code in which your memories – good and bad – are written, and an integral part of your identity. It is the language in which your mother and father sang you to sleep, and in which you now sing to your own children in their new beds in a new home. It is one of the few sources of familiarity and continuity you can offer your them in the face of so much disruption and change.

Today, on International Mother Language Day, we celebrate the many home languages spoken by migrants, refugees, as well as indigenous heritage languages, not only for the rich diversity they bring to each country’s linguistic landscape, but also for the benefits they bring to individual multilingual speakers.

Undoubtedly, learning English is one of the most crucial factors for integration in Scotland. The ability to communicate in the official language allows New Scots to make friendships, understand the local customs and culture, and, needless to say, is mandatory for (children’s) education. In Scotland, local colleges, community centres, and other organisations offer free ESOL classes for refugees, as well as in-home tutoring with local volunteers.

However, less attention is given to home languages for refugee families. It is well established that children, in any circumstances, who are supported in continuing to use their home language are more successful in learning to speak, write and read in the language of the wider community. Nevertheless, it takes only one well-meaning but uninformed teacher, doctor, speech therapist, or social worker to advise refugee families to reduce or eliminate the use of their home language in favour of English. This can result in a lose-lose situation for families, as the children receive low quality (low proficiency) input in English from the parents, and, worse, they lose a valuable chance to hear high quality input from the parents. What’s more, an abrupt loss of the home language, and the continuity and familiarity that it brings, might add to the trauma that refugee families have already experienced.

Even Scotland itself stands to lose when a generation of children stop speaking their first language(s). The recently launched New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018-2020, strongly promotes bilingualism instead of one-way linguistic assimilation for refugees and acknowledges that the ‘wider economy and international reputation’ of Scotland can only gain from supporting – as well as learning – refugee languages.

Exciting research carried out at the University of Edinburgh, and by other researchers, suggests that bilingualism at any age has an advantageous effect on everyday cognitive functions, such as attentional control and task switching. Research has also shown bilingualism can delay the age at onset of dementia, regardless of factors such as immigration or education status. This all has important implications for refugees, in that bilingualism is a true advantage for them at a time of great upheaval.

In 2016, the volunteer group at the Edinburgh branch of Bilingualism Matters formed a Refugee Working Group, with the aim of addressing the gap in support for home languages for refugee languages. One activity has been to compile a special language resource directory providing information on multilingual libraries, multilingual playgroups for families, language courses or conversation ‘meet up’ around Edinburgh in different languages.  The directory will be available on our website soon, and available for distribution by organisations who help refugees in the near future.

Last year for the Scottish Refugee Festival 2017, we hosted an event titled ‘Keeping Families Connected with the Home Language in a New Homeland’, with talks by Professor Thomas Bak and Dr Vicky Chondrogianni.  It was a great opportunity to discuss in detail how scientific findings support the message of the importance of home languages for refugees.

Be on the lookout for our Bilingualism Matters event in the Refugee Festival Scotland programme for 2018!



  1. Susan Appleby says:

    Very interested to know what you discover re multilingual library provision, through public library resourcing, the FB page Multilingual Library Scotland or indeed any other group that is supporting reader /bi-literacy development. Please keep me posted!

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