Over Coming Language Barriers through Non-Formal Education

Over the last 3 months I have been a volunteering on a project called “Time to Be Welcome” based in Athens, Greece. I have been delivering non- formal education activities to young refugees at a shelter run by a local NGO which houses families that are vulnerable to human trafficking. Since I started volunteering in Greece I have really enjoyed working with the young children at the shelter. However, I have also found one major challenge and that is speaking the Greek language. So far, I know 6 words from the Greek language and it’s not because I haven’t been trying to learn it, but perhaps because of my dyslexia it’s quite difficult for me to learn new languages. I remember someone once told me that learning a new language is like teaching a baby to talk, you start with one-word sentences e.g. for most babies it’s “mamma” or “daddy” then you move on to two word sentences and so on. That is what I have been doing with the Greek language and hopefully by Christmas I will be able to speak basic Greek.

Every week when I work with the children in the shelter I find it hard to communicate with them. I do arts and crafts activities with them. I love going and seeing the smiles on their faces but sometime the language barrier is a problem. The children I work with come from several different countries and as a result they speak many different languages, including Urdu, Farsi and Arabic. Which unfortunately are all languages I do not speak. But since I’ve been there for quite some time now I have come up with some tools to overcome this.
The first communication tool I use with the children is I draw pictures that describe the steps in the craft projects we do. I do this by taking the children through the activity step by step, often having to wait for everyone to catch up so that we move forward together even if it takes more time. I also try to limit my drawings to a maximum of 5, however this doesn’t always work as some projects might take longer and require more drawings but what I’ve found is that the children can become less focused and less engaged when this happens. To overcome this, I use other approaches which I’ll go on to explain.

The second method I use which is also the one I most prefer to use is a step by step demonstration. The difference between this and the drawings approach is that here I am sitting with the kids and supporting them to follow what I am doing. Another great thing about this method is that it allows me to stop halfway through the activity if one of the kids needs help. The way I solve this is by just saying, “Let’s take a five-minute break.” This keeps the other kids busy and gives me the time to help the person who needs a hand. Then I continue with the steps. This methodology works best if you have a large class and can’t go around to everyone individually or if you’re doing a project that is larger than other ones you have done in the past.

Last but not least, I can always rely on my little helpers in the class. What I mean by that is some of the children I work with have a basic level of English which is super helpful in overcoming the barriers to communication as they help me communicate key instructions to the other children in their own language. This has also helped the children doing the translating because it helps them improve their understanding of the English language, as well as also just building a supportive colony.

It is difficult working with people who speak a different language but there is always away around it if you’re flexible. I hope that these tips help other volunteers who are facing language barriers in their work.

Peace Out ☺

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