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Integrating Refugees Through Language Learning

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The UK has a serious language deficit issue that’s estimated to cost its economy a staggering £48 billion every year. It also faces considerable challenges around integration, which must be tackled if we’re to ever overcome the toxic rhetoric around Brexit and ongoing global refugee crisis.

The language deficit problem costs the UK economy £48 billion a year Click To Tweet

And that’s exactly what a recently launched social enterprise called Chatterbox proposes to do with a beautifully elegant solution. It uses technology to bring together the unique existing skills of those refugees with demand in the host nation by employing them to teach their own language and culture in their adopted country.

“Chatterbox teachers are doctors, lawyers, engineers and academics – highly skilled professionals with a lot to offer,” says Chatterbox founder Mursal Hedayat, who herself came to the UK as a refugee from Afghanistan. “It’s fantastic for them to engage in stimulating work whilst learning more about the way of life here,” she explains.

There are over 117,000 people with refugee status living in the UK, yet despite having above average levels of education and training, they are much more likely to be unemployed and in poverty. The way that government policy allocates them to a particular area often sees people housed in places where there are relatively few employment opportunities, which is something the online learning element of the Chatterbox platform helps to address, by allowing them to engage with students regardless of their location. This is supported by Chatterbox’s teacher training programme provides a platform for them to network, build their confidence, and improve their overall employability by gaining relevant UK work experience.

“I don’t want to be a burden on the government, I want to be an asset, ” says Kainaaz, a Chatterbox tutor and exiled film producer and director.

Even though the project is still in pilot phase, it has already been commissioned by SOAS University of London to deliver 400 hours of conversation practice to its students. The institution – which specializes in the study of the languages and culture of Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East – will allow students taking a language as part of any of their degree courses to book one-hour sessions with native speakers of the language they are learning to practice and improve speaking and listening skills.

In spite of above-average education and training refugees are more likely to be unemployed Click To Tweet

Lutz Martens, Dean of Faculty of Languages and Cultures at SOAS and a specialist on rare African dialects, explains that the opportunity for students to build their confidence and fluency through immersive learning with a native speaker is invaluable:

“We teach more than 30 languages, and for half of these, we are the only UK University teaching them,” he explains. “Here at SOAS we believe that languages are the key to understanding people, regions, societies and cultures – and indeed ourselves. It offers them a unique way to better understand the cultural, social and historical background in which the language is spoken. The project builds on the cultural and academic expertise of refugees in the UK and highlights the enriching contribution they make to our communities.”

Chatterbox are now looking to build similar partnerships with other Higher Education institutions in the UK ahead of their public launch which will take place later in 2017. At that point individual students will also be able to use the platform to book lessons in a variety of languages including various dialects of Arabic and Persian as well as Swahili, Korean and Spanish.

Chatterbox technology can help bridge the gap between refugee skills and demand Click To Tweet

Alice Bonasio is a VR Consultant and Tech Trends’ Editor in Chief. She also regularly writes for Fast Company, Ars Technica, Quartz, Wired and others. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow @alicebonasio on Twitter.