First Words (by Rachel Beacher)

How do you teach a group of students a language, from scratch, when they don’t share a common tongue with you or each other, and they come from vastly different parts of the world? For many migrants to Switzerland, learning the local language is essential in order to integrate, find work, and make new lives for themselves. Some have come here as employees of one of the many international companies or organizations based in Switzerland, while some have come as refugees, fleeing conflict and persecution, and for them, a successful integration can be a life or death matter. Teachers at inlingua language school in Lausanne explained to Rachel Beacher how they work with students from many different social and cultural backgrounds.

“Courses for absolute beginners, with students coming from such different countries and socio-cultural backgrounds, are truly a challenge,” explained head of French Agnès Collet. “It is important for trainers to impose French as the language of communication from the start, even if some well-educated students try to use English. In the first lessons, we use lots of images, for example, fruits and vegetables found in Switzerland, numbers, flags and maps. The teachers also have to use pantomime a lot, just like the students, which can sometimes bring about amusing situations.”

The school has 150-200 students, from many continents, about half of whom are migrants. Some have bigger challenges than simply learning a language, described Agnès. For example, some might seem addicted to their mobile phones during lessons but are in fact anxiously waiting for news of relatives who have attempted the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. The classes frequently find ways to celebrate together, for example, religious festivals or birthdays. “The teachers regularly bring something to eat – chocolate is very much appreciated, but cheese – not at all!”

Agnès added that migrants often cooked food and brought it to class to share. “While there exist differences in their level of education, in their socio-cultural status and in religion, in general, I see a great mutual respect. All these migrants are, in some way, survivors, in the same situation, and I notice a lot of support between people from the same country, or at the same level of French.”

Students who progress quickest tend to be ones who immerse themselves in the culture, listening to songs and watching films in French.

Language Teacher Nathalie Berini offered one pupil a unique opportunity to immerse himself in Swiss culture – she invited him to live with her and her family. Nathalie teaches a group of eight students, half of whom are from Eritrea, while the others are ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan, a people persecuted by the Taliban. She explained that Hagos, a young man from Eritrea, moved in after studying on her course for five months and had shown himself to be very hardworking and open to learning the language and about Swiss culture.

“Everything is going well,” she said. “He is making good progress in French and has a pace of life very calm and balanced, he does a lot of sport and he is always ready to help and carry out household tasks.”

The Berinis receive funding from L’EVAM (Établissement Vaudois d’Accueil des Migrants) and Nathalie, who has founded a running group for migrants called Intégr’action, said that the process to move Hagos in had been very simple.

“I would only encourage people with a spare bedroom to welcome these young people who just want to integrate. Unfortunately, life in the shelters doesn’t help them. I would like to think that there are many people who would like to help but don’t know how.”


Rachel Beacher

Rachel Beacher is a British journalist and editor who worked for UK newspapers and magazines for over 15 years. Also in her home country, she spent three years volunteering for refugee charities. She has lived in the USA, where she was part of an intercultural group for the families of international university staff and students. She moved to Lausanne in 2013 and is raising two bilingual children.

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