There are more than 25 million refugees worldwide. Different refugees are in different stages of migration that involve different life situations and different needs (Drachman 1992
). Whether they are in a transition country waiting to relocate or settled in their final destination, language learning is often an essential part of their journey. Throughout their unstable journey, most of the refugees have access to smartphones (Gillespie et al. 2018
). In this scheme, smartphones present them with opportunities for mobile language learning. It had been noted that language education for refugees should account for their unique life conditions and the circumstances that drive them to learn a new language (Kleinmann 1984
). However, most of the existing and easily accessible mobile language learning tools were not built with refugees in mind, despite the size and the specific needs of the refugee population.
Previous work has been conducted to support the language learning activities of refugees. It is mainly aimed at supporting their learning of the local language of the host country to facilitate their social inclusion process, e.g., learning German in Germany (AbuJarour and Krasnova 2018
; Ngan et al. 2016
). These studies provide valuable insights regarding the language learning of refugees who are settled in their final destination. However, the particular language learning needs of refugees and the differences between the needs of settled and transitioning refugees remain unknown. Identifying the unique needs of refugees in different stages of immigration is essential to develop better language learning tools for refugees.
In this study, we aim to understand the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Germany in order to develop language learning tools. Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Germany are in different life situations and stages of their journey. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are mostly in transition. Moreover, they speak Arabic, Lebanon’s official language. However, young Syrian refugees in Lebanon are trying to study English (Casalone and Puig 2015
; Riller 2009
) to facilitate their immigration to a safer country with better education opportunities and higher respect for human rights (UNHCR 2017b
). Syrian refugees in Lebanon are facing harsh living conditions and are studying a language that is not locally spoken (UNHCR 2017b
). On the other hand, Syrian refugees in Germany are learning German to better integrate and settle in their new host country. The German government provides them with free German classes, and they benefit from being continuously surrounded by the German language.
To inform the design of language learning tools for Syrian refugees, this work aims to understand and compare the tacit and latent needs of Syrian refugees transitioning in Lebanon and Syrian refugees settling in Germany. The research question that this work aims to answer is: What are the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Germany for learning languages using mobile language tools? To identify these needs, we use Participatory Design (PD) techniques. By involving the end users of a technology in its design (Muller 2003
), PD can help elicit the tacit and latent needs of future users (Iversen et al. 2010
; Van Mechelen et al. 2017
). We present the findings of a two-part participatory design study with eight Syrian refugees interested in learning English in Lebanon and ten Syrian refugees learning German in Germany. We compare their different needs and discuss the opportunities created by and challenges of meeting their language learning needs using mobile tools. The results of this study could lead to an informed design of a language learning tool for Syrian refugees to use throughout the different stages of their journey.
We report our findings in three sections. The explicit knowledge section describes the participants’ motivations to learn a new language, the methods they use to learn the new language, and their familiarity with mobile technologies. The tacit needs section presents the unarticulated needs of Syrian refugees regarding language learning. Finally, the latent needs section presents the needs regarding language learning that Syrian refugees have and are not yet aware of. For each of the sections, we report the results that are common to the refugees in Lebanon and Germany and the results that are specific to each of the two groups.
4.1. Explicit Knowledge
Explicit knowledge was extracted from the individual interviews with the participants and our observations of their familiarity with mobile technologies.
4.1.1. Motivations to Learn the Target Language
Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
In the interviews, the participants reported three main reasons for learning English, which appear to be directly linked to their occupations. In fact, the participants who were enrolled in Lebanese schools wanted to learn English to understand the science and math classes and succeed at school. One female participant, a mother whose children attend Lebanese schools, wanted to learn English to help her children succeed at school. Even though it is essential for Syrian refugees to learn English for educational purposes, they reported that their end goal is to leave Lebanon. The participants who were single and employed reported that they want to learn English to facilitate their exit from Lebanon. Two young male refugees reported that they will not return to Syria because they escaped the compulsory military service there, but they cannot foresee a future for themselves in Lebanon. Another male refugee wanted to leave Lebanon for Canada, where his wife resides. As she was underage when they got married, she did not report her marriage upon arrival to Canada, and therefore cannot help him get a spouse visa. Her husband is now trying to immigrate there; he explained, “Learning English will give me more points and facilitate the approval of my application”.
Syrian Refugees in Germany
During the interview phase, participants expressed their desire to learn German to be able to settle in Germany. Six participants reported that learning German will allow them to enroll at university or find full-time employment. One noted, “We need a certificate of language to enroll at university or to find any kind of job”. Three participants who are currently enrolled in a German university reported that learning German is essential to stay in Germany, be part of the society, and “maybe try to become a German citizen”. One female participant stated that she came to Germany to be close to her children who were already there. Learning German will allow her to stay close to them; she said, “I am not in this situation by my own will, I was forced into it. The kids left Syria and I cannot live without them. I want to learn German to be able to work here and stay close to them”. Learning German is a way for all the participants to build a life in Germany and the reported motivations were common to the participants regardless of gender, age and occupation.
4.1.2. Methods of learning the target language
Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
The methods for learning English depended on the occupation of the participants and their gender. The participants who were enrolled in Lebanese schools learn English at school. A 23-year-old male participant uses Duolinguo, a mobile application, to learn English. The rest of the participants rarely attend English sessions provided by NGOs. A female participant reported using dictionaries to learn English. As mentioned earlier, female participants did not own smartphones and used smartphones belonging to their brothers, husbands, or fathers to connect to the internet. This restricts their connectivity time and limits their possibilities of using mobile technologies for language learning.
Syrian Refugees in Germany
All participants reported learning German through the free German classes offered by the German government. The participants were attending classes ranging in level from A1 to C1 (A1 being the most basic level and C1 the second most advanced level). Moreover, male participants reported using language learning applications to improve their language skills, whereas female participants were learning mainly through the language classes. The Language applications used by men included Google translate, Flashcards, Rosetta Stone and Arabdict, a crowdsourcing Arabic-German dictionary.
4.1.3. Familiarity with Mobile Technologies
Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
We asked the participants to sign up for and use a language learning website in order to understand the extent of their familiarity with technologies. The participants were required to input an email address, create an account on the website and learn a couple of words. Most of the participants had email addresses but could not remember them. The facilitators helped retrieve them by looking at other applications on their phones. Most of the participants were familiar with the Arabic keyboard. Two participants had difficulties typing in Arabic due to their low literacy level. The participants were very slow while using the English keyboard as they took time to search for each letter.
Syrian Refugees in Germany
We followed the same process in Germany, asking the participants to sign up for and use a language learning website in order to assess their familiarity with technologies. Nine of the participants were very familiar with the process and easily performed the tasks using the English and Arabic Keyboard. However, the men showed more familiarity with the English keyboard compared with the women. The oldest participant, a 54-year-old woman, took more time to complete tasks using the website compared to the other participants. She also had difficulties with the signing up process and the English keyboard and needed assistance from the facilitator.
A summary of the explicit knowledge collected through the interviews in the exploration phase is presented in Table 1
and Table 2
4.2. Tacit Needs
We present below the tacit needs that we identified through the thematic analysis.
4.2.1. Common Needs of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon and Germany
Need for Time Management
During the brainstorming session, the participants in Lebanon reported lacking time to study English. The participants who were employed work all week and do not benefit from any days off. Some of the students go to school for half a day and work for the other half. Moreover, participants reported being tired in the evenings when they finally had the opportunity to study English.
The participants in Germany reported a lack of time to review the German lessons learned during the day. Due to their unstable housing situation, appointments with government officials, and long amounts of time spent on Berlin’s public transport system, participants have little time left to study German. Moreover, female participants reported that their housekeeping and child-rearing duties were time consuming: “I wish the German government provided housekeeping training courses for Syrian men”.
Need for Recollection
While brainstorming the difficulties of learning English, the participants expressed their tacit need for recollection. Participants in Lebanon reported their inability to remember the vocabulary they learn. In the discussion that followed, the participants expressed their discouragement, e.g., “I forget a lot. I learn a word, then I forget it”.
The participants in Germany reported that they often forget uncommon words that they learn as they don’t have the opportunity to use or hear them.
Need for Social Learning
The participants in Lebanon reported feeling lonely when learning English. Few people around them are interested in learning a new language or are supportive of their endeavor.
The participants in Germany expressed the need for social learning with Germans, in contrast to the refugees in Lebanon who wished they could learn with their compatriots. Participants in Germany reported a desire for more contact and exchange with Germans. The tacit need for social learning was expressed in the brainstorming session as well as in the following discussions.
4.2.2. Tacit Needs of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
Need for Discipline
The tacit need for discipline was extensively expressed by the participants. On multiple occasions throughout the workshop, the participants complained about their lack of commitment to learning English. Moreover, three participants wished there was a teacher who was willing to teach them English because then they “will have to attend”.
Need for Motivation
The participants reported that they often see themselves losing their motivation to study English. “It is hard to find a job if you are Syrian in Lebanon, and it is hard to leave Lebanon. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like learning anymore”.
Need for Calm
Participants reported living in very noisy environments that do not support tasks that require concentration. Moreover, they reported being continuously distracted by members of the family or members of the community as it is common for a large number of people to live in the same house.
4.2.3. Tacit Needs of Syrian refugees in Germany
Need for Contextual Vocabulary Teaching
The participants expressed the need for specific vocabulary knowledge. Polysemous words in the German language are problematic: “Words have different meanings, I don’t know how to use them”. Moreover, participants stated difficulties understanding and using bureaucratic vocabulary or field-specific terms.
Need for Identity Appreciation
Participants extensively expressed the tacit need for the appreciation of their identity: “We have an old culture and civilization, this is what I would like to share”. “People ask me if you we have cars in Syria, of course we have cars in Syria. I don’t have the vocabulary to explain what Syria is”.
4.3. Latent Needs
We present below the latent needs identified from the thematic analysis.
4.3.1. Common Latent Needs of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon and Germany
Need for Self-Expression
When envisioning the future, the participants reported a latent need for self-expression. All participants in Lebanon expressed their desire to learn how to introduce themselves and communicate with people. Moreover, their ideal language learning tool would allow them to go to the market and “sell” things. Participants wished they could be able to present themselves well in work or visa interviews. A participant shared his desire to learn “big words” to express himself better.
In Germany, participants wished they had the skills to speak about philosophy or social issues with Germans: “I am not able to express my deep thoughts or to conduct interesting discussions”.
Need for Fun
When describing ideal language learning tools, the participants in Lebanon and Germany expressed the desire for “a fun application” or “an entertaining tool”.
The participants in Germany imagined an application that would allow them to watch movies based on their vocabulary knowledge: “The content we find is usually either boring or very difficult to understand”.
4.3.2. Latent needs of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
Need for Foreigners
During the ideation session, participants expressed a latent need to meet and interact with non-Arab foreigners. Refugees in Lebanon often come directly from Syria and have few opportunities to meet non-Arab foreigners. Many application ideas involved a “foreign teacher”, “seeing foreigners”, “talking with foreigners”, and “traveling and meeting foreigners”. Interaction with foreigners was a recurrent topic in the participants’ discourse.
Need for the Presence of English
Through the ideation session, participants showed a latent need for the presence of English. When imagining the future, participants imagined a world where they will be surrounded by English: “I would like to see ads in English on billboards, with an Arabic translation”, “I would like to have all the names of things in the supermarket in English”.
4.3.3. Latent Needs of Syrian Refugees in Germany
Need for German Friends
Participants repeatedly expressed their need for a close relationship with a German person. During the ideation session, participants imagined a solution that would allow them to have German friends. The female participants who were wearing veils expressed this need more strongly. They reported feeling a reluctance from Germans to have social interactions with them: “I think it is much easier for men and non-hijabi women to learn German and interact with Germans”.
Need for Feeling Equal
The need for equality was expressed in different forms. Some participants reported that they prefer speaking English with Germans, as it puts them on equal ground: “They are not speaking their native language, I am not speaking mine, the interaction is more equal”. Moreover, some participants expressed the desire to volunteer “as a way to give something to German society”: “We are in an inferior position, Germans need to be patient when we speak German slowly. I would like to contribute in some way”. Finally, during the ideation session, participants proposed the creation of an Arab-German channel where German movies are translated to Arabic and vice-versa: “They will learn about our culture, and will learn more about theirs”.
A summary of the tacit and latent language learning needs of the refugees is presented in Table 3
We conducted PD workshops with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Germany and identified their tacit and latent language learning needs. In addition, we presented the Syrian refugees’ motivations to learn a new language, the learning methods they use, and their familiarity with mobile technologies through interviews and observations.
It has been noted that the tacit and latent needs are derived from a rather small number of refugees. Despite the obvious limitations, the results are relevant for two main reasons. First, to our knowledge, no previous study has aimed to understand the needs of refugees throughout the different stages of their journey, even though those populations require special attention and support. Second, our study retrieved the tacit and latent needs of refugees through PD sessions. Therefore, the results deepen the understanding of (i) what refugees say, (ii) what they need and don’t express in words, and (iii) what they will need in the future in the context of language technologies.
In the following sections, we discuss our findings and the opportunities for designing language learning tools that support refugees’ language learning processes.
5.1. General Language Learning Needs of Refugees
All learners have common needs and many of them have been explored extensively. The need for fun has been explored as a way to learn more effectively (Perifanou 2009
) and is not unique to refugees. Additionally, our findings show the need for social learning that could be associated with the benefits of learning within a community of practice (Lave 1991
). However, some of the needs that we found are stronger in refugee communities and others are specific to them. Previous studies confirm that the need for socio-collaborative learning is strongly present in refugee communities (Epp 2017
). Moreover, our results confirmed the need for language learning tools specifically targeting refugees and answering their unique needs. In fact, the tacit needs for recollection and calm are more likely to be present within refugee communities. The need for recollection was highly present in the discourse of the refugees in Lebanon and Germany and could be caused by memory impairment. Previous studies on refugees showed that PTSD, depression, and general distress could lead to memory impairment (Johnsen and Asbjørnsen 2009
). Moreover, the tacit need for calm is confirmed by a previous study stating that noise in the camp is one of the most frequent problems reported by refugees (Benson-Martin et al. 2017
). The refugees in Lebanon and Germany expressed the needs for time management and identity appreciation. These two needs are directly related to the difficulties of settling in a new country and being a refugee.
5.2. Different Language Learning Needs of Refugees in Lebanon and Germany
Some of the tacit and latent needs identified in this work confirmed the difference of language learning needs between the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Germany.
The latent need for foreigners is particular to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Syrian refugees in Lebanon often come directly from Syria and have few opportunities to meet non-Arab foreigners. Meeting or having contact with foreigners would allow them to put into practice what they have learned, thereby boosting their confidence and enabling them to communicate with the external world. The refugees in Lebanon also expressed a latent need for a greater presence of English in their environment. Refugees learning the language of their host country encounter their target language continuously throughout their daily life. However, Syrian refugees in Lebanon expressed a desire for a more concrete application of their newly learned skills and more opportunities to be exposed to the language.
On the other hand, Syrian refugees in Germany expressed the need for identity appreciation, a need that has been shown to create stress among refugees as an impact of acculturation (Bhugra and Becker 2005
). The need for a German friend, or a friend from the host culture, is another need that is specific to refugees in the settlement phase.
Interestingly, some Syrian refugees in Germany reported choosing to speak English, not German, in an attempt to be on equal ground with German citizens. This purposeful avoidance of speaking German negatively affects their chances of practicing the target language.
The refugees in Lebanon expressed a need for motivation whereas the refugees in Germany did not. This could be due to the different nature of their goals. For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, learning English could help them, but is not mandatory nor does it guarantee that they will achieve their goals. Getting their visa applications approved or succeeding in Lebanese schools relies on many other factors. Conversely, learning German is mandatory for Syrian refugees to achieve their goal of long-term settlement in Germany. Moreover, the effect of learning German is concrete and palpable in their everyday interactions.
5.3. Implications for the Design of Language Learning Tools
The previously presented needs provide multiple opportunities for designing language learning tools to support refugees in their language learning activities. These features could be included in language learning tools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Germany, or refugees in similar situations.
To answer the need for time management and discipline, refugees can be provided with data that recommends the best times and locations for studying based on their past learning activities. Data on log in study times have already been collected in existing language learning tools, as well as location data in some cases. These data points could be analyzed to provide such recommendations.
To answer the need for recollection, language learning tools could measure the retention rate of the refugees by providing flashcard type quizzes. The data that is collected from the quizzes could be analyzed later to adapt a spaced repetition system based on the individual recollection needs of the refugees.
The need for motivation could be answered by analyzing the refugees’ performance on the language learning tool and providing them with the opportunity to share their advancement reports with embassies or schools. By doing so, the language learning tools would provide them with a concrete and palpable outcome that they could use to achieve their goals.
The need for calm could be answered by encouraging the refugees to study when a calm environment is detected. The noises surrounding the learner could be detected through the phone’s microphone.
Refugees reported the need for contextual vocabulary learning. To meet this need, dictionary and location data could be collected and analyzed to understand the lexicon that the refugees are potentially interested in learning in specific contexts. Based on this analysis, the language learning tool could provide the refugees with new words to learn, or previously learned word to recollect, in those contexts. Moreover, the latent need for the presence of English, expressed by Syrian refugees in Lebanon, could be answered through lifelogging ubiquitous language learning features that recommend objects to learn depending on the location of the learner. Ubiquitous language learning environments have shown to be beneficial for language learning in that they help the language become embedded in the daily life of the learner (Ogata et al. 2011
). Learners should be able to upload logs offline. The synchronization of the logs and the recommendation system could be activated when an internet connection is available.
The refugees reported that the needs for identity appreciation and self-expression are affecting their learning. To answer these needs, language learning tools can collect information on the work, educational background, and interests of the refugees. Based on this information, the tool could provide them with language learning materials that allow them to talk about their Syrian identity, themselves, and their interests. Furthermore, by collecting feedback on the learning material, the tool can recommend new learning material based on what other refugees with similar backgrounds found useful.
The needs for social learning, foreigners, German friends, and a feeling of equality were extensively reported by the refugees throughout the discussions. However, those needs, social in their nature, can hardly be met through traditional language learning tools. We encourage researchers and designers to further investigate ways to address these challenges through language tools that support refugees in their learning activities.