Transmigration and English language learning

When we consider the proliferation and influence of English-language media, culture, business and politics we can see that English is a global language. In terms of numbers, Mandarin varieties likely outweigh English users, but the sheer global expanse of English is undeniable. And, increasingly, the global population is migrating. Currently, we are seeing levels of migration exceeding those experienced after World War Two, the highest in decades. For educators a profound precedent has arisen, an important interplay between the growing, global learning of English and how the language itself is utilized during increased transmigration.


Transmigration expands the classic understanding of migration as being only unidirectional to viewing it as a web of movement, in numerous (sometimes unpredictable) directions. Self-identity, culture and language might not be confined to one singular nation-state construction, but rather consist of a combination of global experiences. With such high frequency of movement at the moment, English could be an important instrument in achieving success during migration and the initial years of settlement in new regions, but how we teach and research the use of English (as an international language) may need to change according to this unique situation.

Methodologies of teaching and researching for (trans)migrants

Currently, I see two areas of concern with how English is taught and researched for (trans)migrants. English is often taught with the intention to achieve native-level accuracy, particularly in abstract concepts which do not prove to be useful in real-world situations. How important is Renaissance English to a student whose family moves for a new job or because of threats of deportation? English learning should also be viewed as an instrument of migration, one that allows success and survival in situations of movement and settlement. Literature regarding migration also abounds (e.g. T.C. Boyle The Tortilla Curtain, John Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath, Chimamanda Adiche Americanah and NoViolet Bulawayo We Need New Names) and could be coupled usefully with autobiographical self-reflection tasks and practical language exercises, such as how English is used in certain situations of (trans)migration.

Beyond national methodologies

Secondly, English language use should also be researched outside of national methodologies. Rather than considering only (supra-)national educational standards and requirements, we need to look closely at how English (and more generally languages) are actually needed for our global students. For this we must move personally into the sphere of research, instead of viewing it as external examiners. Ethnographic methods of inquiry are a good start, but we may need to involve ourselves even more so. Linda Tuliwai Smith suggests that “research is not an innocent or distant academic exercise but an activity that has something at stake and that occurs in a set of political and social conditions” (1999: 5). As educators, we are also researchers of our field, and we should be ingrained in the conditions of our students in order to find the purpose of our teaching.

Giessen: a point in global English use

The college town of Giessen, Germany is situated 45 minutes north of Frankfurt/Main and is the point of first contact for many of those seeking asylum under United Nations treaties. As one of the major centers for asylum seekers in the region, it offers refuge for individuals fleeing violence and persecution around the world. For several individuals from Syria, English may have been an instrument of survival and ultimately their success in Giessen. After starting an educational project, Free School Giessen, I met these individuals, and their stories of using English during their transmigration to Germany helped to shape my understanding of English teaching. I asked, did you use English to travel to Germany? One individual from Syria wrote:

I used English in all the countries all over the way to germany. I used English mostly to talk with the police all over the way to Germany. I used it also to book a hotel or a restaurant or to ask about places and how can we reach it. I used also English on the camps like in Greek for example, we hadn’t translators or they’re not always available so I translated for the people there. Also for medical check or medicine for the sick people on the camp we used only English.

English as a language of survival

English use could be a significant means of survival during transmigration as seen in the response above. For others their English ability meant the difference between arrival and possible deportation by border police (read the remarkable autobiographical story: “A Train Trip”). As educators, we may have to account for the possibility that some of our students will be faced (again) with dangerous, unpredictable situations in their lives. For some, English was an instrument that allowed success during transmigration and settlement in new countries. We need to be personally involved in the social conditions of our students, because their needs in the classroom may differ radically from what is expected. The difference may be dire.

Smith, Linda Tuliwai (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies. New York, New York: Zed Books.

A story of migration: “A train trip”


Leave a comment
  • Thank you for this insight in the topic, and a big thank you especially for the transcript “A train trip”. I am an English teacher in training (Referendarin) at a Gymnasium in Hessen. Our school’s curriculum follows the syllabus proposed by Klett’s Green Line, and the textbook for grade 8 starts with the topic “Reasons for Travelling”, which includes a very brief (and in my opinion insufficient) look at the topic of (forced) migration. I have been looking for an authentic text to support this topic a bit better, and this one fits perfectly. I am excited to see what my students will think of it.

  • Thank you for sharing this valuable teaching experience. It is of paramount importance that in our daily work we keep being attentive for pressing cultural and also political developments like refuge and migration. Your commentary addresses the crucial issue of how, while working with prefigured content and topics in curricula, syllabi and textbooks, we should be able to integrate new topics and up-to-date materials into our language learning classrooms. I very much like the idea of combining coursebook work with the discussion of current issues and new materials. As I suggested a while ago, this way the textbook may well serve as a window to a whole textual universe beyond the classroom and a gateway to most relevant current cultural discourses.

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