A Language App for Refugees

A Language App for Refugees

Two young refugees look at a wall with handprints of other refugee children from all over the world, at a refugee reception center in Hamelin, Germany.

SourceJulian Stratenschulte/Corbis

Why you should care

Because there’s nothing more important for integration than communication.

More than a million refugees poured into Germany last year, and the country’s government has opened its doors unilaterally. But feeling at home is another story. Deutschland is probably safer than the country they left — but it’s also full of distrusting locals, unfamiliar customs and, most discombobulating of all, a completely new language. OK, why mince words: Who wants to learn German when freshly traumatized?

Enter Hallo App Deutsch. The free app, which is sanctioned by the Austrian and German governments and has recently launched, is specifically geared toward teaching refugee children German. An adult version has just hit the app store, but that’ll be slightly more complicated.

The project came together in just 10 weeks, largely because it was already in the works under a different guise. Manfred Kastner, one of the founders of Vision Education, which developed the app, says they were creating an app to help German children learn English — so it wasn’t such a stretch to make one for learning German. “For a child, learning is like playing a game,” he says. “It’s very natural, and you basically learn automatically.” The app for kids focuses on pictures — key for refugee children who may not be familiar with the Latin alphabet or have much experience with reading — and on pronunciations, and is designed to be comprehensive enough that kids who have completed it will be able to follow school lessons taught in German. Ideally, he says, kids would have the app along with a teacher and a course book, but it’s designed to be enough on its own so that kids can start making their way in a new world.

However, with something as complex as language, it’s hard to define what “enough” is. “Language lives only in interaction, and that’s something that happens in a classroom,” says Hendrik Langner, CEO of phase6, one of the companies working with Vision on the app’s development. He says the app is useful for rote practice, and for basic vocabulary — but when it comes to becoming fluent, an app can take you only so far.

The app isn’t just a means to create more German speakers; it’s also a way to make refugees feel welcome in central Europe, something that’s been up in the air as nations negotiate refugee quotas. For Kastner, it goes back to Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously said: “The limitations of my language are the limitations of my world.” Unless the refugees can communicate to the people around them, their lives are bound to be restricted. “When you flee from Syria to Germany, in Syria you may have been a big, strong oak,” says Kastner. “But when you come to Germany, you feel like a bonfire. Without your language, all your talents, all the things you can bring in, are very limited.”

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