Due to the increasing number of migrants and refugees (e.g. over 1 million refugees in Europe in 2015), there is a higher need for people who can teach their language to migrants. This raises two types of issues:

  • There are not always enough professional language teachers available, so there is a higher need for volunteers who were not trained as language teachers. For example, the program Teach Children in Schools & Refugee Centers in Australia looks for volunteers who do not necessarily have any teaching experience.
  • Another issue is that refugees may be traumatised, learning the language is not their main priority (especially if they are just passing through the country, as is often the case in Europe) and that the facilities at refugee centres are often limited.

In what way can these volunteers best help migrants learn their language in refugee centres where organising a full language course is not possible, according to research or recommendations by linguists?


  • This is a question about teaching (methods, teacher expectations, etc.), not about how to motivate migrants to attend language courses.
  • The question is not about (the best) language teaching methods in general, because untrained teachers cannot acquire these methods at short notice. So the answer is not "whatever the best teaching methods are", because the focus of the question is on circumstances that prevent or make it difficult to organise regular language classes in refugee centres.

1 Answer 1


“Lay Teachers” (Council of Europe)

According to the linguist Hans-Jürgen Krumm, who wrote a set of tips published by the Council of Europe, lay teachers hould not be required to teach as if they had gone through teacher training. Krumm gives the following advice:

  • Don't pretend you have been trained as a language teacher; instead, focus on what you can do.
    • You don't need to teach grammar, since the goal is not to teach refugees to speak the language correctly or to help them pass language tests.
    • You don't need to correct mistakes, except by continuing to speak correctly, in other words, by acting as a model for correct language.
  • Learning the language is not the most important goal or problem of refugees, so it is not recommended to put refugees under pressure with regard to language learning.
  • You should not expect to solve all (linguistic) problems of refugees.
  • You should not be disappointed when certain language errors do not disappear. The refugees you are trying to help are very diverse (with regard to education, socio-economic status, language proficiency, etc.), so you should not expect all to perform equally well.
  • The strengths of “lay teachers”:
    • A lay teacher can be "the person who explains things and provides information", e.g. about how things work in the host country.
    • A lay teacher can be "the person who introduces refugees to ‘things’ with the aid of language". *A lay teacher can be "the person who acts as a communication partner"; it is very important to be patient and to be able to listen.
  • Krumm also describes five traps that teachers should avoid: excessive emphasis on instruction, control freakery, the desire to correct, the pressure of responsibility, and the care syndrome.
  • Before you start to "help people access the national language" (Krumm uses this phrase instead of “teaching”), it is useful to find out the following things:
    • What language competences do they already have? (Can any of the refugees act as an interpreter?)
    • What is their previous language learning experience? (Which languages, what level?)
    • Does any of them have prior knowledge of the national language?
  • "Do not set up a “classroom” but a place where everyone wants to come and fits in well."

Hans-Jürgen Krumm also gives advice on what to do when you are expected to give a more course-like type of language support.

Hermann Funk's Tips

Hermann Funk (professor for German as a Foreign Language at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena's Institut für Deutsch als Fremd- und Zweitsprache und Interkulturelle Studien) gives the following tips (on YouTube, in German):

  • If you use a course book and you notice that certain parts don't fit your goals (i.e. teaching a language to refugees), don't be afraid to skip those parts. If certain sentences in the textbook sound strange or unusual, skip or replace them.
  • Learning oral skills can only be learnt by practising them, not by just reading dialogues, filling in gaps in dialogues or speaking only single sentences. Spoken communication should be the most important part of language teaching.
  • Learning grammar should take a backseat to learning to communicate. The grammatical rules that determine what is correct or not can still be learnt after learning how to speak.
  • Practising the language should involve speaking, reading, writing and listening; practising the language should combine skills instead of trying to isolate them from each other.
  • Never learn or teach words in isolation. When certain words are used together, they should be learnt together. This does not always mean learning full sentences, but also simple phrases such as “salt and pepper” and “playing football”.

In another YouTube video, Hermann Funk gives a few more tips. (The list below is a selection from the 10 tips in the video, since some were already covered in the previous video and some others apply to teaching in general.)

  • If you get the impression that no textbook is ideal for your teaching goals, you are probably right. However, don't start writing your own textbook. In Germany, for example, you can use the learning materials provided by the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (Federal Office for Migration and Refugees). (See the webpage Geflüchtete unterrichten.)
  • Skip everything in the learning materials that does not fit the teaching goals. Do use the audio materials and, if available, the video materials that accompany a textbook. Skip all exercises that appear artificial or out of touch with everyday life. Replace names and places in exercises with names and places that are relevant to the needs of the learners.
  • Plan what you want to teach; formulate concrete goals for each teaching session and for longer periods of time (the next day, the next week). That way, you can later check whether these goals have been achieved. These goals should be formulated as "can do" statements: “The learners can …”
  • Ensure variety in teaching techniques and subjects. Also give learners some time to talk to each other about what they have just learnt.
  • Practising the language means using the language to say something meaningful, e.g. talking about a text, an experience, etc. It should not be confused with filling in correct grammatical forms in cloze tests (this would amount to testing, not practising). Learners should be given the opportunity to speak a lot, because speaking does not only practise oral skill but also grammar.
  • You can use the tests in textbooks to check the progress that learners have made, instead of checking what they don't know yet. Discuss the test results in one-to-one session with the learners.

There is also research in this area; I have collected some references to papers etc. on this webpage. That page also contains links to resources for people who teach German, French or Dutch to refugees.

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