ESL Learners: the Refugee Crisis and Higher Education

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That was, for most of you, probably extremely difficult and near impossible. Does that make you wonder, What’s it like to complete your entire education in another language? Well, one thing’s for sure: for many students, there’s no other option.

English proficiency is a standard for success. Therefore, little consideration is given to ESL learners in elementary school: unable to connect linguistically or culturally with teachers, what’s known as ‘subtractive bilingualism’ deals a huge blow to the achievement gap. In fact, by the fourth grade, the achievement gap between English language learners (ELLs) and their peers is larger than the gap between students on free and reduced-price lunch. Ensuring a bright and capable future for these students in today’s world hinges upon their ability for higher achievement, especially as represented through test scores. 

Bilingualism can be an extremely valuable tool. But when a child has not achieved competency in their native language, education in a second language (English) can result in what’s called subtractive bilingualism: the piled-on language causes the child to be unable to achieve competency in either English or their native tongue.

Let’s say that a child is granted the opportunity to achieve a level of competency in their native tongue! (For those who are further interested in what constitutes that level of competency, a good research starting point is BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) vs. CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). This situation would result in additive bilingualism, or high achievement in both languages.

I would like to point Minnesota towards the Sirius Migration Education Project: a European initiative meant to take into account the increasing refugee populations throughout Europe. The project is research-based and involves trial stages that proceed in increments of one month at a time.










Sirius recognizes three major stakeholders included in the ‘effective inclusion of migrants in education across Europe’: EU education stakeholders (i.e teacher unions), organized EU migration and integration stakeholders, and NGO stakeholders/immigrant-led education initiatives. However, Sirius leaders also understand that there is a need for a wider variety of stakeholders. Because integrated ESL education is no longer just an education issue, it’s a sub-issue of the refugee humanitarian crisis.








As classrooms all over the world– from Edina, MN to the EU– continue to develop the best method of structuring classrooms to aid refugee children, what can we do individually? Though perhaps we cannot personally shape systemic changes, I believe we can promote positive systematic growth through:

1) Lobbying our local representatives to create more inclusive education. Elected officials must understand just how critical refugee education is and how early language skills can make all the difference.

2) Delving into another language ourselves. When ESL students are culturally and linguistically estranged from both peers and teachers, a fundamental lack of key connection occurs. By learning even BICS skills in languages such as Arabic, we can help bridge that gap as adults functioning in a world with many refugee children.

By reforming our education system to fit more aptly with the looming issues of today, we can aid in a part of the refugee humanitarian crisis. Education is essential to the growth and development of human beings, and it’s absolutely essential that we make the education system accessible to everyone.

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