Refugees Learning English: Obstacles

One of the greatest needs in Amarillo is for refugees to learn English. We know it, and they know it too.

In Amarillo, members of our community often complain about the poor English abilities of local refugees. Just talk with a nurse or a teacher, many of whom regularly call translation services for the simplest of communicative needs. They wonder why so many refugees are failing to speak even basic English.

At the same time, refugees themselves frequently bemoan their own poor English skills. They wonder why, after years of ESL classes, they still struggle to ask for water at the grocery store.

So what’s the problem?

Obstacles for English Learning

One of the greatest needs in Amarillo is for refugees to learn English. We know it, and they know it too. Unfortunately, even though numerous programs and local ministries offer ESL classes, several obstacles prevent success for large numbers of refugees:

  1. Linguistic obstacles: ESL teachers are bewildered by the vast numbers of languages spoken by students in their classrooms. Each language interferes in different and confusing ways, producing real challenges for educators. Teachers aren’t normally taught about linguistics, but the context in Amarillo calls for higher linguistic awareness.
  2. Pedagogical obstacles: Adults learn differently than children do, but our education system prepares educators to teach American children—not foreign adults. This often produces a mismatch between well-meaning teaching styles and the needs of adult students. When adults students question whether they are learning, they will stop showing up. Local ESL ministries begin each semester with multitudes of eager adults, but typically struggle to retain even half of those students through the end. We believe some simple changes will improve this situation.
  3. Obstacles of opportunity: Most local ESL classes are offered just once a week. Also, they’re typically only offered during the daytime when many refugees are working. Additionally, attendees return from classrooms to communities who don’t speak English to one another. There are few opportunities for refugees to engage in informal English dialogue throughout the week. Without regular daily practice, no grammar knowledge will help them to ask for water at the store or schedule a dentist appointment.

Our Solutions

So what must we do to mitigate these challenges? The Refugee Language Project is planning to address these obstacles in several ways:

  1. Preparing materials highlighting linguistic interferences for the languages spoken by local refugees
  2. Providing group trainings for ESL programs
  3. Observing & coaching individual ESL teachers
  4. Offering informal Table Talk events where refugees practice using English over free meals with volunteers

What other solutions should we consider? What other problems do you see? Let us know in the comments.

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