Adult immigrant/refugee classes are, in my experience, less homogeneous than most of the other classes I teach and have taught. There are age differences, and students can have widely varying educational backgrounds and language skills. There are, however, some similarities that I have noticed.
Immigrants and refugees usually have very clear plans for what they want to achieve, and as a rule they are realistic when it comes to what is possible. However, because they feel that they have lost some years of their life, or are forced to go back to school after they had finished in the home country, some refugees and immigrants may be tempted to give themselves too little time to achieve the grades they want or need to move on. In these cases, it is frequently a case of “more haste, less speed”.
With very few exceptions, the adult students I have taught take school very seriously. The main challenge is perhaps getting them to understand and accept the differences between the Norwegian school and examination system, and what they were used to in their home country.
In fact, some are so well-behaved that it can be difficult to see if they really understand or not, or if I am boring them to tears by repeating things they already know.
All adult learners obviously have a full life outside school. They can have jobs, family or other courses that they are taking. In addition, many immigrants and refugees may have other problems in their lives that can make it difficult for them to fulfil their obligations as full-time students.
Speakers of minority languages sometimes have different problems in English than what we are used to seeing in Norwegian students. It is common knowledge that several Asian languages do not have tenses like Indo-European languages. Speakers of Slavonic languages find the use of definite and indefinite articles challenging, at least to begin with.
In addition to problems in English that are caused by their first language, a number of adult foreigners seem to have been making the same mistake for so long without being corrected that it has become a permanent feature of their speech, and one which it is extremely difficult to remove. For example, the -ed ending might be pronounced the same way (/id/) in all these cases: liked, loved, hated.
Similarly, I have had students who cannot pronounce the th sounds, so that thin becomes sin, and that becomes zat.
It is of course possible to work with problems of this kind, and as a rule progress can be made, although it almost goes without saying that when someone born in 1955 has been making the same mistake for as long as he has used English, it may take some time and effort to change things.
For some foreign students it appears to be strange that we ask them for their opinion about a text they have read. They are probably more used to a school system which asks them to read a text and show that they have understood it. Sometimes students seem to want to know in advance what the “right” answer is, even though it is a matter of personal opinion. For students from backgrounds where personal opinions are not nurtured or encouraged, it can be confusing, perhaps even daunting, to be told that: “There is no right or wrong answer. Give your opinion and explain it.”
Because so many of my students are used to a language-learning regime which focuses on reading a text and showing understanding, I often see that they have problems adjusting to a task which requires a shift in focus or genre. As an examiner I regularly grade scripts where it is clear that the student has not read the instructions carefully enough. For students from a totally different school system, it is therefore particularly important to spend some time looking at examination questions at regular intervals during the school year and discussing what would be an appropriate response to them.
Many foreign students are already multilingual. For example, in Nigeria there are three main languages: Ibo, Hausa, and Yoruba. Nigerians will therefore often have skills in more than one of the official languages, in addition to English. In Cameroon there are about 260 dialects. Consequently, a person from Cameroon will most likely speak a local dialect, perhaps a neighbouring dialect or two, and then learn to speak the official languages of English or French. As we know, India has several hundred languages and dialects, and most Indians have experience of using English to communicate in daily life.
However, when students like this come to our schools, their language skills are not valued as much as they should be. Perhaps we as teachers should ask them about how they became proficient in their languages, and whether any of this experience can be used when learning English, or Norwegian for that matter. Instead, though, they are likely to meet negative comments about their African or Indian English pronunciation. Perhaps we should be more willing to accept that African English is a variant of English, just like Indian English. In other words, and again “perhaps”, we should be more tolerant of the accents used by African and Indian immigrants, as long as communication is not impeded.