There are 65.3 million people that have been displaced around the world, many of these people fleeing into european countries. I have visited six different european counties over the past couple of months including: Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Lithuania, United Kingdom, and Finland. Each country has a completely different national language. I do not speak any of these languages, but was grateful that many people I met also spoke English. However, for the refugees to integrate into their new home, they will need to learn the national language to have access to education, jobs, renting an apartment, and simply to make friends. It's hard to feel at home when you can't understand or communicate with anyone.
I feel naive for saying this, but language isn't something I ever thought about as a roadblock. It wasn't until I heard a joke on the bus that I started to think:
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Tri-lingual
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bi-lingual
What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.
It's funny because it's true.
Having English as my first language is a huge privilege. There are over 1.4 billion speakers across the globe. Almost everyone I meet from a foreign country knows two or three languages, one of those is commonly English. Students everywhere learn it, its the international business language, it gives you easier access to social, political, and educational institutions.
I interviewed six students at the Finnish school about their experience integrating into the school system. They all explained that their first task was to learn the Finnish language. They work sometimes 6 hours a day on learning the language because they know it is the key to current and future opportunities.
The first student I spoke to was named Sajad. He is from Afghanistan. He came to Finland without any family when he was 15. He learned Finnish while living in a foster home. This family not only helped him learn the language by talking with him every day but also helped him quickly learn about the local culture.
I also met another teen girl who had just arrived in Finland about three months ago. We spent the afternoon talking while I painted her face for a performance. We were able to get to know each other because she learned English at school before she had to flee. She came to Finland without her parents and is struggling to participate in many of the classes at school because she is still trying to learn Finnish. She joined a special arts club which is helping her integrate despite her language barriers. They use dance, drama and video to help refugees communicate their feelings and build relationships with other teens in Finland.
Learning a language is not easy. I tried to learn French for 3 years. My fluency is so low that I would only be able to ask for a glass of water or maybe a bathroom. It would be impossible for me to talk about my emotions or dreams to a family that only speaks French. I can appreciate how difficult it is to learn a language and now, when I meet someone learning a new language – I admire their ability, dedication and willingness to feel vulnerable to the awkwardness of speaking in a new language.
Meeting people who can speak two, three, or more language inspire me to work hard and learn another language myself.