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Themes - Migration and language education

Migration and language education

Today Europe is home to millions of first, second and third generation immigrants as well as ethnic minority communities. The ECML has a number of publications and on-going projects dedicated to language education for migrants both at school and in the workplace, as well as advice and guidance for decision-makers and employers on how to benefit from this diversity.


There are now more than 50 million people in Europe living in a country other than the one in which they were born. Language education, and in particular the learning of the language of the host country, has a major role to play in supporting the integration of young and adult migrants into education systems, the labour market and society at large. This integration in turn helps create a more socially cohesive Europe. The ECML has a number of publications and projects related to migration and language education.

Key issues for migration and language education

Integration into education

Countries where there are large numbers of young migrants who have little or no knowledge of the language of the host country face serious challenges in terms of assuring access to quality education. Highly developed competences in the language of the host country are essential if these young people are to integrate well in school and realise their academic potential.  However careful consideration must be given to the approaches used in teaching the language of schooling.

Previously it was thought that complete immersion into the new language and abandoning the first language or mother tongue was the best way to do this. Research has shown that the preservation (or learning if they are young children) of the language of origin is important not only in forming an identity but also in the successful acquisition of the language of schooling.

Approaches which foster plurilingualism for all learners, not just for migrants, are a key to successful integration in schools. According to the Council of Europe’s Language Policy 

Division, “access to literacy in two languages benefits cognitive development. Thus, the language skills of children and adolescents from migrant backgrounds should be fostered by whatever means available, partly as a matter of human rights and partly in order to increase society’s linguistic and cultural capital” (Council of Europe - Language Policy Unit 2010).

Activities for raising awareness of the diversity of languages and cultures through inclusive, plurilingual and intercultural approaches are features of good quality education and have a positive impact on society as a whole.

Long-term unemployment and low-status jobs

In spite of efforts to integrate migrants into European labour markets, education systems and other societal structures ,   migrant and ethnic minority workers in most countries are still over-represented in both low quality employment and long-term unemployment and under-represented in further education and vocational training.

The causes of exclusion are complex and often go beyond the scope of educational intervention. Nevertheless, communicative competence in the language of the host country is essential for inclusion and participation both in the labour market and society at large. To tackle this issue, policies to promote the education and training of young and adult migrants are needed.

Immigration and social cohesion

Migrant communities are frequently isolated from civil society; this is especially the case for stay-at-home spouses whose language skills sometimes are “fossilized” at a very elementary level of communicative skill. Plurilingual approaches to education which include all family members and acknowledge the cultural heritage of migrants help to enable them to participate more fully in social life.

Policies and practice which help the whole of the migrant community – those employed, their children and their families – all rely on developing language competence as a crucial step in social integration.

How the work of the ECML contributes to language education for migrants

A number of projects in present and past ECML programmes have addressed directly the language needs of migrants:

In the workplace

The Language for work project recognises that the task of equipping migrant employees in the workplace requires the cooperation of all the different stakeholders.  It is therefore working towards the establishment of a European learning network for languages at work.

A range of resources on the project website will support researchers, learning providers, employers, trade unions and policy-makers to address the specific needs of migrant and ethnic minority employees in  learning (including formal, non-formal and informal learning) the language of the host country.

A previous project - Odysseus - analysed the language needs of migrant workers and ways in which language training can be organised at the workplace.

In schools

Migrant children in schools need highly developed competences in the language of schooling, not just in terms of communicative abilities but in terms of academic literacy in specific subject areas. The Language Descriptors project describes the skills needed by 11 to 15 year-olds to study effectively in mathematics and social sciences, and links the descriptors to the levels of the Common European Framework of Reference. The descriptors help teachers of subject areas to set learning targets for migrant learners and to adapt their teaching to their needs.

The Maledive project focuses on support for teachers of the language of schooling, e.g. is  German in German-speaking countries whose initial training was based on the assumption that this language was also their pupils' mother tongue but who now find themselves with many pupils for whom this is not the case. It is creating a website with resources to illustrate how plurilingual and intercultural approaches can enrich teaching and learning.

In the community

The aim of the Community project is to develop a “collaborative community approach to migrant education.” It explores new ways to enhance young migrants' education by developing links between schools, the home and local partners in education. It describes ways in which this can be achieved through activities which involve local communities and families in the life of the school. 

A Moodle platform for teacher trainers offers a wide range of activities for teachers to review their practice as well as practical resources for developing learners’ literacy skills by collaborating with parents and the wider community.  The platform also shows ways to make effective use of resources such as libraries and arts centres to enhance learning of the language of schooling. 

The projects described above are directly concerned with migration and language education. However, many other ECML resources are  also relevant, particularly those related to plurilingual education and social cohesion, as well as those related to learning languages in vocational contexts and to language and  to social cohesion.

Research which illustrates the value and benefits of migration and language education

Research into migrant education has demonstrated that the educational success of migrants is enhanced when their first language is acknowledged and used. Equally, language awareness and bilingual approaches are known to contribute to cognitive development of all children.

The Council of Europe has a website dedicated to the linguistic integration of adult migrants (LIAM). This website provides policy-makers, curriculum developers and all those involved in supporting adult migrants with a wide range of tools to help member states review and improve policy and practice in this field.

Featured resources

Collaborative Community Approach to Migrant Education. A virtual open course for educators

The resources offer innovative ways to enhance young migrants’ education by developing links between schools, the home and local partners in education. This educational joint venture develops the learners’ skills in the language of schooling as well as their plurilingual competences.

Available in English et French

Go to the publication page

Language skills for successful subject learning. CEFR-linked descriptors for mathematics and history/civics (Language Descriptors)

These resources highlight challenges for young learners in subject classes where the language of instruction is not their first language. The focus is on minimum language standards in history/civics and mathematics for learners aged 12/13 and 15/16. The language descriptors are linked to CEFR levels A2, B1 and B2 and available in six languages.

Available in English and French

Go to the publication page


Andrea Young on "Collaborative Community Approach to Migrant Education - A virtual open course for educators" (Educomigrant)

See the website

Video presenting the publication on the occasion of the ECML conference in December 2015. The presentation took place in the context of a workshop involving results/publications of two related ECML project ("European portfolio for pre-primary educators The plurilingual and intercultural dimension" (Pepelino) and "Involving parents in plurilingual and intercultural education" (IPEPI)).


Eli Moe on "Language skills for successful subject learning - CEFR linked descriptors for mathematics and history/civics" (Language Descriptors)

See the website

Video presenting the publication on the occasion of the ECML conference in December 2015. The presentation took place in the context of a workshop involving two related ECML project results/publications ("A pluriliteracies approach to teaching for learning" (Pluriliteracies) and "Towards whole school language curricula - Examples of practice in schools ("PlurCur)).