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Languages and the refugee crisis

Updated Tuesday 22nd September 2015

Can the European Day of Languages impact the linguistic challenges in Europe's current refugee crisis? Mara Fuertes-Gutiérrez discusses the importance of language in intercultural understanding.

European day of languages poster 2015 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Council of Europe It seems pertinent, in Europe’s current circumstances, to use the opportunity provided by the European Day of Languages to raise awareness on the importance of intercultural understanding. EU countries are getting ready to take in refugees from non-European countries and, amongst all the challenges in this situation, one of the most important obstacles is the linguistic barriers that will have to be overcome.

Refugees are about to experience a new environment which will certainly include, amongst other issues, an initial culture shock. Of course, the languages involved play an essential role in this situation: how will refugees learn the new language and how long will it take them? How much, and in which contexts, will they use both their native language and the new language they will have to learn in their asylum country? What will be the impact of this situation on the linguistic habits of the second and future generations? There is also an additional issue affecting the refugees’ languages themselves, as several languages concerned are endangered or moribund (Ethnologue, 2015) and could eventually disappear if they are not well looked after under these circumstances.

All these issues are worth reflecting on, as history demonstrates there are different potential outcomes depending on several factors – for instance, certain communities of Sephardi Jews still speak their vernacular language more than 500 years after leaving the Iberian Peninsula – however this is not always the case. Second and subsequent generations can stop using their ancestors’ language for various reasons, both intrinsic (such as the need of demonstrating their belonging to the main group) or extrinsic (like peer-pressure).

Initial interactions with a new culture can take a variety of long-term orientations overall: according to accredited theories on acculturation, the spectrum fluctuates from individuals who will adopt cultural values from the new culture without losing their roots – a phenomena known as integration or biculturalism – to people who can end up rejecting both cultures – described as marginalisation – which frequently leads to the establishment of ghettos.

Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Council of Europe Residents from the host countries can contribute to overcoming these barriers though, by different means: for example, they can naturally ease the common non-native speakers’ stress when trying to understand a foreign language by using simple but very effective strategies such as speaking slowly or avoiding using idioms or jargon. Other steps can include abstaining from stereotyping, exploring and acknowledging the differences between their own culture and that of their new neighbours’, or even learning their language – only a few useful phrases, to express greetings or say thank you can make a huge difference. Most of these adjustments can be easily implemented by people from the host countries, but can have a very positive impact – not only in the refugees’ acculturation process, but also in the whole community, as learning about a new culture and a new language clearly has enormous benefits.

In addition, there is a shared challenge both communities have to face. Cultures communicate differently, and strategies for turn-taking, voice tone and intensity and their meaning or expressing politeness can vary enormously amongst languages. This might create severe misunderstandings in interactions involving individuals from different cultural backgrounds; however being aware and becoming familiar with these differences, as well as trying not to automatically take offence, can help intercultural understanding.

The European Day of Languages aims to encourage European citizens to learn more languages in order to promote linguistic diversity, as well achieving plurilingualism across Europe. At present, when Europe is facing an enormous challenge in which languages play an essential role, this day represents an excellent opportunity to demand that European governments act on this important issue. We must call upon them to implement strategies to tackle the linguistic issues derived from the current situation, including, for example, linguistic policies that reflect the interaction between the languages involved or initiatives to support intercultural understanding. It seems that even under these extreme circumstances, good planning and a shared responsibility can help and create opportunities – not only for the refugees, but also for the countries taking them in. More importantly, dealing appropriately with the linguistic challenges ahead could be the first step towards a future of peaceful and happy co-existence.

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