How can we stop language barriers holding back learning for people on the move?


One in five students have a migrant background in OECD countries, resulting in multi-lingual / multi-cultural classrooms. Yet only half of immigrants receive language support in OECD countries on average. Arriving in a new country and suddenly sitting in a new classroom must feel foreign enough without also being left to navigate learning a new language without support. Learning a language is the first step to opening up education mother language day gem reportsystems to immigrants and helping them feel like they belong.

Moreover, not speaking the language of instruction holds back students’ learning. It is a key explaining factor behind the fact that two times as many foreign-born students leave education early in the European Union than natives.  Data from 2018 in OECD countries show that about 62% of first-generation and 41% of second-generation immigrant students did not speak the assessment language at home.

Not speaking a language of instruction can be related to worse education outcomes. In Uganda, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo were automatically placed in lower grades because they lacked English proficiency. They ended up with higher repetition rates even when they had mastered the syllabus. This also ended up placing pressure on what are usually the least qualified teachers and raised protection risks for younger children. Burundian refugees in Rwanda faced the same challenge.

But despite the importance of language for learning, only one third of OECD countries assess linguistic needs of immigrants on arrival.  Often new arrivals are often mainstreamed into language classes matching their age, rather than their need.

In Europe, language classes vary in length, from one year or one school year in Belgium, France and Lithuania to two years in Cyprus, Denmark and Norway, three years in Latvia and four years in Greece. The 2019 GEM Report calls for better language support for migrants and refugees but warns against separating children from their peers for too long in language classes, hindering both educational progress and social integration. Sweden reduced language classes to last only two years, for instance, seeing that studies lasting longer resulted in only a 9% secondary school graduation rate.

Pre-school education for the children of migrants is particularly important for giving them early exposure to the language of instruction. In Denmark, for example, a  recent law requires 3-year-old children of immigrants not attending pre-school to take a Danish language test. Those that fail must attend pre-school and receive additional language training or their parents lose their social benefits related to children. Many countries recognize the importance of the early years. The rights of undocumented children to attend pre-school are protected by education policies in Milan, Genoa, Turin, Serbia and Sweden.

And even if school places are found, the teachers standing in the class often lack training in teaching the language of instruction as a second language. The number of immigrants requiring language support in Japan increased by 18% between 2014 and 2016), for example, yet there is still a shortage of teachers who are trained in Japanese language education and related fields.

The 2019 GEM Report showed that education is increasingly on the move: the number of migrant and refugee school-age children around the world today has grown by 26% since 2000. But teacher training is not keeping up. In six European countries, half of teachers felt there was insufficient support to manage diversity in the classroom (and the next GEM Report 2020 will confirm this finding based on the most recent TALIS data). In Turkey, teachers appointed by the education ministry do not have the training to teach Turkish to foreigners. After the first year of Greece’s refugee education plan in 2016, one of the weaknesses identified was that teachers had not been hired on their ability to teach Greek as a second language. Subsequently, language difficulty was the main reason refugee children stopped attending formal education in the country.

As with any shift towards inclusion, linguistic education policy can also be contested politically. In the United States, multicultural education policies, such as bilingual or multilingual instruction, have met active pushback. By contrast, there is increasing focus on inclusion and social cohesion in Europe. Ireland is highlighted as a champion country, with its secondary leaving certificate examination now administered in 18 EU languages. Yet, success of this kind costs. The country received €100 million for language support in schools and €10 million for adult courses from the EU.

Shifts towards inclusion are an exercise in democracy, requiring participation from all actors in education, as well as the community to make them happen. The 2020 GEM Report on inclusion and education due out this April will explore this in depth, showing where meaningful interaction with all education stakeholders has opened school doors to diversity and improved learning for all. Sign up to receive a copy when it is released.



  1. I think it is important for institutions to look to bringing on employees that can better serve multicultural students. Hiring bilingual or multilingual could better serve these students, especially with the extra stresses multicultural students experience. Is this somewhere where online institutions could have a leg up if they hire all over the world?

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