2021 Annual Report

Language: Home language maintenance and second language acquisition among Syrian refugee children

Language barriers are a challenge for Syrian refugee children and families when it comes to school participation.

In Montreal, Dr. Andrea MacLeod and colleagues found that parents struggled to communicate with schools due to language barriers. Parents were concerned with their children’s learning and did their best to support them despite not speaking French; however teachers often assumed that children received little at-home support for their schooling. 

Many teachers lack an understanding of the challenges faced by refugee families, including how difficult it is for adults to learn a new language while adapting to a new country.

“One of the things teachers really need to have more awareness of …  is that not all English Language Learners have the same needs … Some come from backgrounds where they’re highly supported by highly educated professional parents and high SES … they have fewer needs than kids who, say they missed years of schooling back in their home country … [Their] parents might have a lot of struggles adapting here, they might be dealing with mental health issues because of trauma …” Johanne Paradis, The Refuge Ep. 3

Dr. Alexandria Gottardo and colleagues found that in Canada, children with refugee experience were placed in age-appropriate grades; however, their language abilities were well below grade level. Dr. Andrea MacLeod and colleagues found that some teachers had unrealistic language expectations for preschool aged refugee children.

“I think the bottom line is that the students want to learn…so, I think having the patience from an instructor’s point of view and from the family’s point of view too, to support the children. I think that’s key.”Mazen El-Baba, The Refuge, Ep. 3

Developing children’s home language can make it easier for them to learn a second language but home language development often declines after arrival in Canada.

“We know that, from a research perspective, … for newcomer families, it is better to keep the heritage language and not drop it completely,…there’s so many different reasons why it’s important – cognitively, socio-emotionally, economically, educationally.. … It’s important not to always think that just reaching ahead in English is the only goal to integration, successful social inclusion and integration…”Johanne Paradis, The Refuge Ep. 3

Dr. Andrea MacLeod and colleagues found  many Syrian refugee children were experiencing delays in their home language development, and that there was little support for maintaining the home language (Arabic) in the community. Dr. Alexandria Gottardo and colleagues found that, due to interrupted schooling, refugee children’s written Arabic abilities were lower than expected at their age. Meanwhile, Dr. Evangelia Daskalaki and colleagues found that refugee children’s Arabic development was behind that of their Arabic-speaking peers in Syria.

“On reflection, I think as a child I may have been a little resentful towards Arabic because I just felt that it wasn’t useful to me, to achieve my goal of fitting in. So, I think I even attempted to not speak Arabic as much as I can so that I can improve my English language skills. …Because it was a huge motivator to actually acquire those skills to be able to fit in society here.” Mazen El-Baba, The Refuge Ep. 3

Even though refugee children are not acquiring Arabic language skill at the same rate as their monolingual peers, Dr. Evangelia Daskalaki and colleagues found that they are still showing good comprehension of syntax and grammar in their home language.

Main Takeaways:

MacLeod and colleagues “Supporting the Dual Language Learning of Refugee Preschoolers” (2020)
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Paradis and colleagues “Examining Language, Literacy, and Wellbeing in Syrian Refugee Children” (2020)
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The Effect of a Dual-language Stimulation Program for Refugee Children

Researchers: Andrea MacLeod1, Diane Pesco2, and Sylvana Côté3
Affiliation: University of Alberta1, Concordia University2, and Université de Montréal3

This study developed and piloted an early intervention for refugee children that combined dual language support in Arabic and French with an evidence-based language-focused curriculum. The intervention was evaluated for its effect on the dual language development, literacy, and well-being of Syrian preschoolers who recently arrived in Montreal as refugees.

Successes and Challenges of Children who are Syrian Refugees: Language, Literacy, and Wellbeing

Researchers: Johanne Paradis1, Xi (Becky) Chen2, Alexandra Gottardo3, Jenny Jenkins2, and Kathy Georgiades4
Affiliations: University of Alberta1, OISE, University of Toronto2, Wilfred Laurier University3, McMaster University4
Research Partners: NorQuest College and H.appi

This study explores factors that contribute to the successes and challenges of Syrian refugee children’s language and literacy development in both their second language of English, and the heritage language of Arabic. This is a three-year longitudinal study, with research underway at three sites: Edmonton, Toronto, and Waterloo.

Exploring the Interdependence Between Morphological and Syntactic Development in Heritage Contexts: The Case of Syrian Refugee Children in Canada

Researchers: Evangelia Daskalaki1, Johanne Paradis1, Xi (Becky) Chen2, Adriana Soto-Corominas1, and Aisha Barise1
Affiliations: University of Alberta1 and OISE, University of Toronto2

This study explored whether Syrian refugee children’s understanding of complex sentences in Arabic and English is affected by their knowledge of morphology (inflection), grammar, environmental influences, and cognitive factors (characteristics that affect learning). It contributes to our understanding of the relative difficulty of syntax (word order) and morphology for Arabic-speaking children who are learning English, and to our understanding of the interdependence between syntax and morphology.