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First intellectual output. Loyola Andalucia University

First intellectual output. Loyola Andalucia University

Alternative language Tools

Interaction with refugees/migrants

Refugees and asylum seekers experience language barriers in general practice. In working with refugees/migrants, face-to-face conversations are an important first step to become aware of the ‘other’ side. Only in this way one can be sure to act according to their needs, and create the necessary motivation on both sides to work together towards a common aim.

Given the refugees/ migrants’ different backgrounds and aims, the social worker has to learn some basics about the target group’s state, culture, politics, and history beforehand since adapting to others’ psychological, cultural and social realities is crucial. Everything starts with communication so, at times, the social worker might find himself talking to the wrong audience. Deprived of the necessary language skills, refugees/ migrants might experience frustration, loss, shame and despair. Before understanding the need to learn the target language, a basic form of communicating should occur.

Thus, there may be situations when the language barrier cannot be crossed and the social worker has to think of alternative language tools meant to help them establish a trustworthy relationship with the refugee/migrant. These alternative language tools could be visual thinking tools, nonverbal communication tools, or sign language tools.

The use of visual thinking tools is aimed at creating a common “graphical vocabulary” meant to help explore different art and graphic techniques and define how they can be useful in work with various inclusion groups. Also, it helps trying out different techniques and identifying what fits more to participants own personal facilitating style and educational environment. By using such a graphical vocabulary, refugees/ migrants can become more self-expressive and the risks of misunderstanding are reduced due to examples of visual realization of different cultural backgrounds, which enable co-cultural expression and awareness. These visual thinking tools could include: video material, pictures, graphic symbols, and signs, cartoons, color codes, in-person visual interaction. 

Another alternative tool is the use of non-verbal communication components, as body language, expressions, gestures etc. When interacting with a refugee/migrant, the social worker needs to pay attention to non-verbal behavior manifestations such as gestures, facial expressions, movements and tone of voice that can convey receptivity, interest, comprehension, hostility, disinterest, anxiety or discomfort.

Willingness to make mistakes means being ready to put yourself in potentially embarrassing situations. Resilience to frustration is important, when learning a totally new language.

The social worker should take an inventory of the refugee/ migrant’s body language. Also, they should consider what the expressions or gestures of the person they are communicating with suggest to see if they fit the accompanying words or if the person’s body language conveys a different message. Friendliness and nonverbal immediacy are generally understood across languages and have been proven to be successful in the communication with refugees/ migrants. Nonverbal immediacy or warmth includes behaviors such as head nods, eye contact and forward body. It also provides emotional support and engagement.

Sign language can be used when there is no knowledge of the target language or when there is no interpreter provided to the refugee/migrant. Using sign language and diagrams has proven to be efficient in establishing some basic communication. Sign languages are an important part of Europe’s multilingual diversity. Based on gesture, these sign languages are as rich as spoken languages in terms of grammar, structure, syntax, and lexicon. Each spoken language has a counterpart sign language that can be used where the other traditional forms of communication fail, on its own or associated with the visual thinking tools or with nonverbal communication tools.

In conclusion, visual tools, non-verbal communication and sign language are important in all communications with the children, youths and adults, however one also needs to be conscious here that things such as body movements can be understood differently depending upon the socio-cultural background. One needs to listen, have empathy and have knowledge of socio-cultural, religious, political aspects that the refugee/migrant has been shaped by.


Consorzio Tartaruga Università degli Studi di Enna Kore Universidad Loyola Andalucia Universitatea din Bucaresti
  Associacion Claver Global Commercium  


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