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From refugee to student

Young refugees who come to the Netherlands understand that the route to a new future is through education. Learning Dutch is often central, but attention is also paid to English. At the Alfacollege in Groningen, this group can prepare themselves for a follow-up study at the university. Their Dutch teacher, Mariëlle Bieleman, wanted to know how the students experience learning Dutch and English at the same time. This bachelor thesis on European Languages and Cultures qualitatively explores the language learning situation of a group of young, highly educated refugees in a transition year. The research was realised with the help of the thesis supervisor Marije Michel.

Research on refugees learning Dutch and English at the same time

Based on the idea that many students have to pass the Dutch State Examination in order to be admitted to a subsequent course, the Alfacollege spends a lot of time and attention on Dutch. However, with the growing importance of English in society, which is also widely used at Dutch colleges and universities, it is also important that students master this language. The consequences of learning two languages at the same time has been studied relatively little, let alone in the context of refugees. Previous research on refugee language learning has mainly focused on learning the national language of the host country. There has also been little research into language attitudes and motivation in this context.

Using interviews in small groups, the research focuses specifically on the students' perspectives. How do the students experience learning English and Dutch at the same time? What are the problems they encounter, as well as possible advantages they have noticed? What is their attitude towards and motivation for learning Dutch and English? How does their specific situation as refugees and newcomers in the Netherlands influence their language learning process?

Language loss in English due to imbalance, but high motivation and good attitude

One of the most striking results of the study is that many students indicate that their English deteriorated because of an excessive focus on Dutch. This is given as a reason why learning the languages at the same time might be disadvantageous. However, the students also mention beneficial aspects, which are in line with existing literature, such as being able to make connections between the languages and using the same linguistic skills for both languages. The students suggest that the decline in English is mainly due to different teaching materials and an uneven distribution of attention. For example, one person says: "I think it [learning languages at the same time] is better for me, but if I have to learn a new language and don't use the other one, that's the bad thing".

When it comes to motivation for the languages, it appears that most participants are highly motivated for both languages. Many of them make a distinction in function and indicate that Dutch is especially valuable for their social life and English for their study and career. Some of them indicate that they were not very motivated for Dutch in the beginning, but eventually are happy with the possibility of connecting with Dutch people. One of them says: "When I came here, I didn't want to learn the language at all (...) I was actually forced to learn the language, (...) but in the end I got good results, because now I have many Dutch friends, who I really have a good connection with and a good relationship".

Furthermore, it appears that many students have an 'ideal multilingual self'; their motivation is driven by an interest in language learning in general and the desire to be multilingual. Attitudes appear to be particularly positive towards English, which is seen as very important due to the international status of the language.

Finally, the interviews show that the students have to deal with many post-migration stress factors, which negatively affect the process of language learning, such as frequently changing schools, integration procedures, having to get used to a completely new culture and even discrimination. Remarkably, the students also see advantages in their situation; they indicate that they have gained more motivation, perseverance and discipline through their experiences. This gives them a better chance of success in learning Dutch and English, as one student said: "All year we think about our situation and our dream, we have the chance here. Other people in our countries don't have that, so we feel grateful and we want to use that opportunity".

Harmonisation and connection

The most important practical recommendations based on the study are: to offer a more equal division in teaching time between English and Dutch, and to harmonise the teaching materials and the language level. Furthermore, the students indicate that they find some connection between the languages useful, specifically in the form of Dutch-English vocabulary lists. Together, the results of this study, which combines several fields of research, uncover some of the impeding and promoting factors in the language learning process of this group. Thus, it contributes to increasing our limited understanding, and really understanding how young, highly educated refugees in the Netherlands experience their language learning process.

Last modified:29 January 2022 11.43 a.m.
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