Indicators for refugees’ effective language learning. An exploratory study

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

34 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents



Literature Research

Aim of the Study

Sampling and Data Collection
Final Sample and Procedure
Data Analysis

Limitations and Future Research


Appendix A

Appendix B


A number of companies in Bremen, Germany, have opened positions for internships and vocational training to refugees and are currently in need of a guideline for employee selection. To this end, this study explored indicators of refugees’ potential language learning effectiveness by carrying out semi-structured interviews with six experts who teach the German language to refugees. Analysis of the interviews followed the thematic analysis procedure described by Braun and Clarke (2006). The results highlighted three steps that could be used as a guideline for personnel selection. First, teachers and other persons who have a realistic impression of the respective learner’s traits regarding intrinsic characteristics, surrounding conditions, and consequent motivation should recommend potential employees. In a second step, recruiters should take into consideration possible biases on part of the respective recommendation giver. In a last step, the role of autonomy as put forward by Ryan and Deci (2000; 2008) needs to be considered, as it can have major impact on the type of motivation of the respective learner and potential employee.

Keywords: language learning, refugees, employment, self-determination theory


Learning a language is an activity of leisure that often comes with the mobility of a person for travel purposes, business activities or an interest in the culture of a foreign country. In a different context, however, a language may be the most important asset an individual must acquire in order to reach a socio-economic status in a country of (no) choice. For refugees fleeing their home countries due to renewed conflicts and war, the language of the target country constitutes a barrier that needs to be overcome in order to integrate into the respective society and labor market. On the other hand, language learning may also be of interest to companies in countries such as Germany, which suffer from a lack of skilled workers, and thus have a vested interest in employing skilled refugees. The current study explores whether and in what ways it is possible to detect a refugee’s language learning capacity already at an early stage, such that a company can reliably employ a refugee based on a set of predefined indicators. The study explores these indicators and thereby provides guidelines for successfully integrating refugees into the job market. Ryan and Deci’s (2000; 2008) self-determination theory lies at the heart of these guidelines and will be discussed especially in the conclusion section of this work.

Literature Research

The following sections review recent population dynamics in Germany, the current refugee situation, theories on second language learning, as well as a model of motivation.

Recent population dynamics in Germany have yielded both a rise of skilled foreign workers moving into the country, and, at the same time, a decrease of skilled workers in the German workforce itself. While the increase is mainly due to the influx of refugees, the decrease is due to the aging German population.

In the past years the European Union has seen an immense increase in incoming refugees. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon estimates the Syrian war to have resulted in “the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time” (U.N., 2016). In their latest report on the number of asylum applications received, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, BAMF) reports 476,649 requests for asylum in 2015 (an increase from 202,834 in 2014), and 120,642 in January and February alone in 2016. The majority (71.7%) of applicants in February 2016 was under the age of 30, two thirds of the requests were filed by males. More than half of the applicants (50.6%) fled from Syria, followed by Iraq (15.1%) and Afghanistan (11%) (BAMF, 2016).

Germany is a main target country for the people fleeing the renewed conflicts in the Middle East. As researchers on behalf of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) have found, this trend is mainly due to social contacts and networks that asylum seekers already have in Germany, and to further factors such as the availability of facilitators of illegal entry and migration, and respective asylum policies in Germany as compared to other countries (Scholz, 2013). At the same time, Germany is facing a demographic shift due to its ageing society, resulting in a “rapidly ageing workforce population” (Jackson & Debroux, 2016, p. 8). The declining birth rates of previous years have led to a population decline (Pallagst, 2008) and therefore, a decline in workers. This challenges German human resource departments to make up for the shortage of skilled workers (Hinte, Rinne & Zimmermann, 2015). On a more macro level, this demographic shift has also created a situation in which Germany’s politics are facing a disproportionate ratio of elderly to working age persons, which stretches the social insurance system based on the support of working persons for the elderly (Börsch-Supan, 2000).

Consequently, the recent influx of especially educated refugees in Germany has been portrayed as a chance to make up for the shortage in skilled, working age people (Geis & Orth, 2015). Based on data of incoming refugees between 2013 and 2014, Hinte et al. mention a very heterogeneous structure of qualifications among them: Around 90% have attended school, around 13% have finished a university degree, and around 42% have completed a vocational training. They also mention, however, that general knowledge of the German language among these groups is “rather poor” (p. 4). It is important to consider that these numbers have changed since 2015, and new statistics must be awaited before more solid estimates can be made. Furthermore, according to the authors, a Syrian national is likely to be more qualified than the majority of migrants from other countries, as Syria is considered an educational country (“Bildungsland”, 2015, p. 4). Taking into account the fact that the largest share of refugees is currently from Syria, it is likely that the average educational level among refugees in Germany is higher now, and that many suitable working candidates with essential qualifications are among the current migrant population, ready to make-up for the decrease of workers on the German labor market.

There is sufficient research on second language learning available. For example, Mitchell, Myles & Marsden (2013) summarize existing theories on the topic and, for that purpose, use theories on universal grammar and cognitive approaches (e.g. memory systems). A study conducted by Dörnye and Clément (2001) researched the motivational characteristics of language learning. However, this study focused on a different target group, consulting the motivation of school-children aged 13-14, learning a second language as part of the school curriculum. The context of language learning for displaced persons is very distinct: the acquisition does not take place for the mere purpose of leisure activities, but much more for purposes of integration into the society and labor market of a host country. This will in turn influence the learner’s socio-economic status as well as, in most cases, that of the family circle of the respective learner. The starting point and motivational disposition in this context is therefore a different one, which requires closer examination.

Interestingly, the recent literature on refugees in Germany focuses mostly on health related issues (Bozorgmehr, Mohsenpour, Saure, Stock, Loerbroks, Joos & Schneider, 2016) and psychology related issues (Eberle-Sejari, Nocon, & Rosner, 2015), such as trauma (Böttche, Heeke & Knaevelsrud, 2016), low vaccination status (Hampel, Solbach, Cornberg, Schmidt, Behrens & Jablonka, 2016), and social work with refugees on site (Scherr, 2015). Furthermore, academia has recently discussed opportunities and difficulties (Eisnecker & Schupp, 2016; Geis & Orth, 2015) that the influx of refugees brings. Here, the shortage of specialists in Germany (Hinte et al., 2015) is mentioned. While these aspects are beyond doubt crucial to analyze and solve, the topic of successful language learning has been largely neglected in the literature, pointing towards an overwhelming insensitivity to the difficulties that may arise due to lack of sufficient language skills. Furthermore, the mentioned authors do not give an outlook on how to facilitate the integration of supposedly skilled Syrian refugees into the German workforce. The connection between the opportunity of filling the gap of skilled workers and effective language learning has not yet been made. The current study seeks to fill this gap by 1) examining the labor situation in the city of Bremen and exploring language skills as the main obstacle for the integration of migrant workers into the Bremen labor market, and 2) zooming in on indicators of successful language learning, enabling companies to fill some of the shortages in the Bremen workforce with motivated refugees.

Since this study was conducted in Bremen, contact with the local chamber of commerce was pursued in order to get an overview of the situation of the city state’s labor market, especially with regard to opportunities for refugees. In Bremen and Bremerhaven alone, 221 companies followed a request by the Chamber of Commerce (Handelskammer Bremen) and opened more than 700 calls for entry level vocational trainings and internships to refugees. During personal communication with a manager of the chamber of commerce, it was mentioned that one of the core challenges was the potential assessment regarding German language acquisition enabling incoming refugees to take on a position in a company. Therefore, only very few spots are occupied by refugees at this point in time (Handelskammer Bremen, 2016). Employers seem to agree that in order to fully integrate the new employees into the company, good knowledge of the German language is a prerequisite. Companies will want to invest in the most suitable applicants, as the financial and time resources required for German language courses are high. A main question for the Human Resources Departments of employing companies is therefore: ‘In whom do we invest our time and money for intensive language learning before the actual training can start?’. While many companies are willing to take over the continuation of language classes within the company in order to start the integration into the company as soon as possible, a guide how to identify skilled refugees with high language learning potential has not yet been developed.

Needless to say, however, suitable applicants will not only be those with relevant skills and knowledge, but also with the necessary type of motivation and behavioral patterns to learn German. Motivation can be sorted in two categories. According to Benabou and Tirole (2003), intrinsic motivation is that which drives a person to do something because it is personally rewarding, while extrinsic motivation drives one to engage in an activity for external reward, such as grades or prizes. Theories on motivation show that not only the quantity, but the type of motivation plays a crucial role in the pursuit of goals. For example, Deci and Ryan (2000; 2008) suggest that in order to develop ideal motivation, three innate needs have to be satisfied, allowing for a human’s function and growth. The authors labeled the three components of their self-determination theory (STD) competence, relatedness and autonomy. The mentioned emphasis on the type, rather than quantity, of motivation is at the center of STD. In this context, competence is one of the three basic psychological needs, which manifests itself through the feeling of mastery of content. The second basic psychological need that Ryan and Deci name is relatedness, which captures the need to engage in relationships and to care for others. The third basic psychological need is autonomy, which is concerned with intrinsic motivation. It is described as the control over one’s own life, which is not necessarily the condition of independence, but rather the influence of the self on one’s own success. The current study uses this theory of motivation in the context of refugees’ language learning.

Aim of the Study

This study addresses the mentioned gap in the literature with the following research question: What are the promising traits of incoming migrants for effectively learning the German language? Due to the exploratory nature of this study, no hypotheses were generated and tested. Rather, expert interviews were conducted with German language teachers working with refugees, and their experience and recommendations were utilized to create detailed guidelines for the selection of promising refugee workers for the labor market in Bremen.

The following sections will provide more detailed information on the sampling and data collection, as well as the methods of data analysis. This section will be followed by an account of the identified codes and themes, and a mind map of the themes as they relate to each other. A discussion and conclusion of the results will be followed by the limitations of the study and an outlook on future research.


Sampling and Data Collection

In the process of integrating refugees into the German labor market, three parties are involved: the refugees, the German teachers, and the departments responsible for the recruitment of employees. As Bogner, Littig and Menz (2009) put forward, experts in the field can serve as “surrogates for a wider circle of players” (p. 2). With the method of interviewing experts, the data gathering process is shortened and therefore is a “more efficient and concentrated method of gathering data than, for instance, participatory observation or systematic quantitative surveys” (p. 2). While interviews with German learning refugees require a qualified translator for more than one language and Bremen companies do not have such resources available yet, this study was exclusively interested in the experience of lecturers teaching the German language to refugees. The teachers of the German language have firsthand experience with refugees and their effectiveness in learning the language. In order to select participants for the expert interviews, purposive sampling was used. According to Patton (2002), the purpose of purposive sampling is to find “information-rich cases” (p. 230), which offer great insight into the issues of interest. The criterion for expert selection was actively providing German language classes to young grown-ups or adults of at least 15 years (age required in order to start an internship or vocational training) in their first or second year of learning the German language. The amount of time that the teachers have already been instructing the language courses was not taken into consideration as a diverse array of types of experience was sought. The number of expert interviews was decided by means of a saturation criterion. That is, the author conducted interviews until the input to the interview guide’s questions was saturated and further interviews were providing no new information. This state of saturation occurred at the end of the sixth interview, as an integral picture of the processes in question was generated.

Recruitment involved either face to face or telephone invites of teachers who met the criterion. The study, its purpose, and the planned interview outline and length were introduced briefly. A first contact was a managing teacher of the adult education center Volkshochschule Bremen (VHS). Due to the busy nature of the vocation in current times, only one teacher of the VHS agreed to give an interview. Therefore, the researcher reached out to one of Bremen’s refugee housings. Here, refugees have the chance to take German classes in the same building in which they live. These courses are organized by the company STB (Software, Training, Beratung [consulting]). Here, two teachers agreed to an interview. Lastly, three teachers of a school center in Bremen, who teach 15-18 year old refugees the basics of the German language four days per week, combined with a one-day per week course in the metal workshop of the school, agreed to interviews.

Final Sample and Procedure

The sample consisted of six German teachers, of which three were female and three were male, with an average age of 51.5 years, ranging from 29 to 77 years of age. Most participants did not describe themselves as religious, except for two teachers, who stated they were Catholic or Protestant Evangelic. None of the participants had a migration background of their own. The experience of teaching German to refugees reached from four months to ten years, while most of the participants also had longer experience teaching the German language in other contexts. The three teachers from the school center in Bremen teach students between the age of 15 and 18. The purpose of these courses is to prepare underage refugees for job entry or vocational training. A maximum of two years of German class in groups of 16 male students are provided. All other interviewees teach classes to people with an average age in the late twenties. These include either refugees who have not yet received their residence permits, as in the case of the class of the STB within the refugee housing, or refugees with papers who are officially registered in courses at the VHS. The majority of participants migrated from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, West Africa (Guinea, Gambia), and Macedonia.

Almost all interviews took place in a classroom of the respective institution, with the exception of one interview, which took place within the premises of the teacher’s honorary office. The interviews lasted 29 minutes on average, ranging from 17 minutes and 45 seconds to maximum 36 minutes and 23 seconds. An interview guide (see Appendix A) was prepared for the semi-structured interviews. Six questions were developed in cooperation with the supervising researchers, and with regard to the objectives of expert interviews.

The open-ended questions addressed the following topics:

1. Promising characteristics of a German-learning refugee for integration into the German labor market with regard to the acquisition of the language.
2. Competencies and behaviors which positively stand out in the course of the language courses with regard to the acquisition of the language.
3. Qualities of the respective teacher‘s best student with regard to the acquisition of the language.
4. Basis on which recommendations to the industry would be made with regard to the speed and effectiveness of the acquisition of the language.
5. The role of the teacher with regard to the speed and effectiveness of the acquisition of the language.
6. The respective teacher’s experience in German teaching and teaching of refugees in months.

Additionally, follow-up questions were used when interesting topics were touched upon, and a last question gave room for the participants to add any comments that were not addressed in the interview. The interviews were conducted in German and began with a brief introduction to the study. After the consent forms (see Appendix B) were signed and standardized questions (name, age, gender, religion, migration background) were asked, an audio recording device was started in order to capture the details of the questions and replies.


Excerpt out of 34 pages


Indicators for refugees’ effective language learning. An exploratory study
Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1001 KB
language learning, refugees, employment, self-determination theory
Quote paper
Rebekka Schliep (Author), 2016, Indicators for refugees’ effective language learning. An exploratory study, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Indicators for refugees’ effective language learning. An exploratory study

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free