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From a worker in Europe

When refugees first arrive in the US, a resettlement agency helps them with housing, health needs, education, and other practical issues. The adults have English classes provided for them for about three months. However, no adult can learn a new language in three months! They need lots of practice, much more than can take place in the classroom.  One of the best things you can do is to be an informal but intentional conversation partner.

Language learners often are too shy and too lacking in confidence to impose their English struggles on others. It is so much easier to stay within their same-language group.  Also, Americans are often so busy that we can give the impression we have kind hearts but no time to spare.

If you decide to make time in your life to help as a conversation partner, here are some tried and tested ideas to guide you:

  • Smile, relax, and be natural. You don’t have to teach, just help them use what they already know. Topics arise naturally from the context of the day.  Even normal ‘small talk’ needs lots of practice.
  • Offer or accept tea or coffee.
  • Speak simply and allow silence as they formulate their words. If you are very talkative, your words will ‘drown’ them.
  • With low-level learners, you can use ‘props’ to support the conversation. Too much direct eye contact can be intimidating with a new acquaintance, and props divert the eyes.

Props can be:

  • Their (or your) children as you watch them on a playground (What a nice boy! Is he your son? What is his name? How old is he?)
  • Your pet. Be aware that most Muslim people consider dogs unclean, and they try to avoid contact with them.
  • The weather.
  • Photos of their or your families.
  • Websites about their country with pictures to prompt your questions and their answers. A search for ‘agricultural products of Afghanistan’, for example, will bring up pictures of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Women often enjoy talking about food. But be sensitive – even this may be painful territory.
  • Shopping together.
  • Gardening together.
  • A craft one of you is working on. Maybe do a craft together?
  • A meal one of you is making. Maybe cook together and eat together?
  • A project to do together: Help a neighbor who is sick by visiting with them, bringing them food, or weeding their garden.
  • Try to connect at least once a week. Little but often is a good way to start.
  • Introduce them to other friendly people.
  • Find out their areas of interest and connect them with a local group. Whether it is gardening, beekeeping, soccer, knitting, car repair, art, badminton, or entrepreneurship, there may be a local group or class they can join.  You need to do the research, put out feelers (would they be welcome?), and go with them the first time.  Talking about their areas of interest in English is a great way to make their language grow.

Finally, bring an open heart – there is much to receive as well as give from this relationship.

If you have tried these, email with your stories. We want to hear from you. Meanwhile, if you feel moved to help refugees, consider making a donation to our fund here. If you are a partner church who is helping refugees, email us your stories. We’d like to pray with you. 


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Header Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay 


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