Refugee Trauma Stunts French-language Learning, Unless Given Individual Attention

PARIS — Mohammad Nazari, a 34-year-old Afghan refugee living in a Salvation Army center in Paris, was separated from his wife and children five years ago in Greece. He has yet to learn the French language, in part because his dream is to leave France and reunite with his family.

In the meantime, the Salvation Army has applied pressure on him to learn the French language because of a government regulation offering asylum seekers up to 600 hours of paid language courses.

“He can’t do anything without speaking French,” said Rodolphe Ndosimao, Nazari’s social worker at the Salvation Army. “When they arrive, they give them six months to learn French, but six months, it’s not enough for them.”

About 200,000 refugees arrived in France, predominantly from the Middle East and North Africa, between 2014 and 2017, according to the World Bank. France is now home to about 337,000 refugees, giving it the second highest number of refugees in Europe, behind Germany.

According to one linguistic expert at New York University, extreme cases of trauma associated with violence and displacement may particularly stunt a person’s ability to learn a new language. Some have witnessed family members murdered by their government or, like Nazari, have been separated from their families.

“There are clear cognitive and psychological challenges that result from a refugee’s experience,” wrote Heather Bobrow Finn, a linguistic professor at NYU, in her report on refugee language learning. “As a result of their memory loss and heightened anxiety in the classroom, they may feel defeated. Teachers, then, must learn to motivate students by creating curriculum that values the students’ needs and cultural identity.”

Nazari now is taking French lessons, motivated by his desire to learn how to be a baker in France, the occupation he held in Afghanistan.

Shikhali Mirzai, a 25-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, escaped his country in 2016, eventually arriving in France after a 36-hour trip hidden in a truck.

In France, he struggled to learn the language despite speaking four others. Mirzai took French classes when he arrived, but didn’t learn enough to find a job.

“French is so difficult to learn,” Mirzai said. “I didn’t know how I could learn French. How can I progress in French?”

Individuals can have different motivations for why they want to learn the French language, a consideration lost in mandated curriculum based in grammar and rote learning, explained Guy Spielmann, a linguist at Georgetown University.

“We discovered that students reacted most positively when they thought that whatever tension they experienced was somehow productive,” Spielmann said. “These people should not be treated as if they fit in the same mold because most likely they don’t.”

After living on the streets of Paris, Mirazi was taken in by a refugee support group organized by students and faculty at the American School of Paris. He was not only given individual support, an important aspect of Spielmann’s research, but was asked to help in the group’s efforts to reach a greater number of refugees like himself.

Today, Mirzai’s French skills improved enough to gain him entry into a political science program at the prestigious French university Sciences-Po.

Innovative opportunities for language learning based in research like Spielmann’s ideas on individual attention have been established in recent years to address the growing refugee crisis in Europe.

In Paris, there are schools like Pierre Claver that take it upon themselves to work with refugees to ensure a smooth transition into French society. It’s unique curriculum — French language, literature and cultural classes — along with one-on-one relationships between French tutors and refugees, offers well-established refugees with jobs and independence.

“The government cannot help every individual to enter the French fabric, social fabric. It’s not possible,” said Ayyam Sureau, Director of Pierre Claver. “This has to be done from one person to another, and it has to be done by the French themselves.”