European Language Policy for Migrants



Citizens of EU nations have guarantees of freedom of movement within the EU by the Schengen agreement. Further, they are guaranteed the right to learn, use and be dealt with, on the official level in their heritage language[15]. While the EU has policies, including the Oslo Recommendations[25] and European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, to protect regional minority languages, such as Basque and Catalan, the definitions used in these agreements often exclude languages that are not native to the specific nation or, more generally to Europe. All EU citizens have the right to learn and maintain their heritage language, though these protections are rarely applied to non-European languages.

From 2013 to 2016, the European Commission ran the INCLUDE program under the European Union's Lifelong Learning Program focusing on language learning and social inclusion of immigrants[2].

In 2014, the European Parliament and the Council established EU Regulation No 516/2014 detailing the procedures regarding the reception and asylum systems. Article 12, part b, Article 8, part d and Article 9, part d mention the provision of language training and assistance through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund[12]. This policy focuses primarily on refugees and persons seeking asylum.

On July 7, 2016, The European Commission adopted the Action Plan on Integration of Third-Country Nationals. This plan acts as a support framework in efforts of migrant integration policies for countries within the European Union. A summary of the coverage of the Action Plan can be viewed here:

(World Economic Forum, 2018).[29]

Timeline of Migrant Integration Policy in the EU

(European Commission, 2017).[13]

The increased migration into Europe in recent years has seen an increased need for migrant policy. A more detailed timeline and descriptions of the development of these policy initiatives may be found here.

Policies that govern language instruction specifically are currently left to the individual member state to define and implement. Though the EU has attempted to define some principles of language usage and instruction to guide member states, participation in these accords is typically voluntary, and while some nations have embraced the guidance, others, such as Belgium, do not feel the need to be bound by the EU resolution because they have already addressed these issues within their own legal systems[1].

Overall, the defining and implementing of language policies within the EU are left to the discretion of the member states. However, certain supranational organizations exist that organize initiatives and programs in an attempt to influence policymakers at the national and international level. Two notable examples are The European Commission and the Council of Europe.

European Commission

The European Commission, stimulated by European Parliament Resolutions, has a strong political mandate which includes nominating a Commissioner to promote multilingualism. Though linguistic integration is the responsibility of the independent member-states[1], the European Commission does influence language policy and educational practice regarding migrants through its various programs and initiatives.


In addition to general European language policy, Erasmus+ serves the migrant community in specific ways. The Erasmus+ program merges seven prior programs and aims to support training and education particularly for youths in Europe. Through this program, the European Commission funds the linguistic integration of migrants. Erasmus+ also maintains the goal of influencing an inclusive European linguistic policy towards migrants and attempts to foster pedagogical innovation through initiatives. The video below discusses goals and implementation of the Erasmus+ initiatives in Sweden:

(European Commission, 2018).[14]

SIRIUS network

Established in 2012, SIRIUS is an independent organization seeking to advocate for education as a universal right to all, improve public education quality to migrants, integrate migrants into school and reduce segregation, provide teaching methods and curriculum that are respectful of linguistic, religious and cultural diversity, facilitate lifelong learning for young adults and adults. Additionally, SIRIUS claims the following objectives[27]:

The purpose of the Network is also to encourage inclusive policymaking so that governments, authorities, schools and communities take action to promote and implement policies and measures aimed at promoting equity and social justice in education, at improving educational opportunities, promoting social inclusion and fight against discrimination. SIRIUS – Policy Network on Migrant Education. (2018).

The Council of Europe

LIAM Project


Retrieved from [5]

The LIAM Project stands for the Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants and focuses on supporting the acquisition of host languages. The mission for this project includes the following objectives:

  • Provide member states assistance in reviewing existing policies and developing new effective policies that keep with the Council of Europe’s principles and values
  • Offer support for effective implementation of language policy
  • Encourage good practices and high-quality in providing language courses and assessments
  • Provide a platform to member states enabling them to reflect on language learning policy and practice

Language, Visas and Nationality

One place where formal policies on language are likely to be found, however, is in the requirements for obtaining visas for work, extended stays and even joining a spouse within certain nations. Germany, for example, requires applicants to obtain a score of B1 or better on a CEFR German language test before granting an extended stay visa, though they do also provide a special visa category for those intending to come into Germany to study the German language[9]. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has different levels of required English proficiency depending on the type of visa that is being requested[19][28]. These policies, however, do not apply to children, or refugees seeking political asylum. The stated idea behind these language requirements is to allow the newly arrived immigrants to acculturate and be able to join the workforce as soon as possible.

These policies extend to citizenship in some countries within the European Union. In 2015, Spain passed the Real Decreto 1004/2015 which requires immigrants seeking citizenship through naturalization to demonstrate cultural knowledge as well as language competency through the exam Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera or DELE[3]. These acts limit migrants access to citizenship as well as reinforces the language hierarchies at the national level, in the case of Spain regarding Spanish and regional languages such as Basque, Galician and Catalan.

German Passport Refugee (Marksman003, 2018)[21] German Visa in Belarussian Passport (Coquimbano, 2016)[7]


Newly arrived immigrants, transitioning into a new culture and a new language often face issues such as social isolation in the new, larger society. Even if they have some skill in the dominant language of the host nation, anything less than full, native-like fluency will mark one out as ‘other,’ or ‘outsider.’ The social integration of immigrants into the larger national and European cultures has become a key area of focus within education, with increasing numbers of educators and policymakers calling for action to assist immigrant acculturation through education.

Evidence suggests that there is a need for educational policy creation and implementation to foster the social integration of migrants, especially immigrant youth, to help reduce the achievement gap between immigrant and non-immigrant students.[18] and the earlier the intervention, the more successful it can be, as the achievement gaps among young learners are often smaller due to the comparatively little academic knowledge that is assumed. For this reason, it is suggested that quality early Childhood education is a key to overcoming acculturation, achievement and inclusion gaps between Immigrant and non-immigrant children. (NESSE report for European Commission)


(Geralt, 2017).[6]

Social Inclusion and Integration vs Linguistic Diversity

"Language is the key to integration" (Rodin, Rodin & Brunke, 2017)[26].

Plurilingualism and Linguistic Diversity are among the 5 key areas the Council of Europe aims to promote. Simultaneously, it is in the interest of the host country to teach the migrants the host language as soon as possible, potentially leading to two conflicting missions.

The European Commisssion's video above is from Sweden and based on Swedish programs of language classes and integration initiatives. However, according to the Migrant Integration Policy Index, Sweden has the highest score of social integration policies of any member-state of the European Union[23]. Additional information regarding these scores can be found at the tool here: Note that while some EU countries performed better than others, no country was categorized as "favorable." The MIPEX website states: "Countries respond to large numbers and poor outcomes of immigrant pupils with many new, but weak targeted education policies, which are not always well implemented or effective in practice"[23].

Even programs in Sweden struggle significantly with social inclusion. In a survey study by Rodin, L., Rodin, A., & Brunke, S. (2017), migrants were interviewed about their language courses and adjustment to life in Sweden. Respondents reported that many of their concerns and linguistic needs were not addressed by the language classes offered, and these required them to seek out extra resources outside of those offered by the initiatives. Many participants repeated the quotation found at the top of this section, a common phrase in Swedish political rhetoric. However, some doubted the validity of this statement and told the interviewer that they believe other factors play a significant role in integration[26].

Many programs are restricted by their own funding and resources and report similar or worse issues of finding qualified bilingual teachers and therefore focus heavily on transferring the host country's language to the migrants, with little or no concern of maintaining or further developing heritage languages. In this case, these policies appear to undermine the general policy of supporting linguistic diversity within the European Union. Migrants are typically not the individuals typically thought of when discussing general EU language policy of Plurilingual and Intercultural Competence.

Dubois-Shaik, F. (2014) provides an overview of some of these discourses surrounding the dichotomy of linguistic and social integration and the valuing of linguistic diversity. Within Western Europe, migration is problematized and linguistic policy and integration is viewed through the lens of deficiency rather than one of mutual linguistic and cultural exchange (p. 715). Dubois-Shaik explores these concepts through the underlying notions of culture and national identity[10].

(World Economic Forum, 2018).[29]

Humanitarian vs Economic Motivations

Some researchers view language as a type of human capital. In this perspective, a person's language learning ability correlates to their employability and connection to the job market. In her evaluation and analysis of the European Commission's INCLUDE project, Cui Bian asks an important question: Are practices and policies conducted from the two perspectives of either learning languages as a kind of human capital or as a human right, contradictory? (p. 477)[2]. Within the last decade, we have seen a major financial crisis in Europe and have more recently witnessed the humanitarian crisis culminating from destabilized political regions in the Middle East.

Projects such as LIAM are supposedly aimed at supporting EU member-states in developing language policies based on fundamental values such as human rights. Therefore, humanitarian efforts are often portrayed as a major motivating force. However, the Council of Europe also noted that "the continuing economic crisis has led policymakers across Europe to prioritise actions, including actions in education, that are expected to contribute to jobs and growth" (as cited by Kelly, p. 105)[19].

Since employability has implications on the nation-states job market and economy, there are potentially more self-serving motives for implementing migrant integration policies besides humanitarian efforts. Despite the need for immigrant social inclusion for immigrants' well-being[26], there has been a noticeable lack of emphasis on the social aspect of language learning[2]. It is therefore difficult to say who these policies are meant to best serve.


Click to enlarge. (Eurostat, 2017).[16]


These policies and programs claim to seek integration into the host country's culture but do not support migrants in many aspects in which linguistic competencies and culture converge. In a study by Rodin Rodin & Brunke (2017), a number of factors attributed to the well-being of migrants which in turn affected social inclusion. Of these indicators include social status and identity maintenance, and sustainable relationships with family and with others. Some of the respondents expressed their frustration with lowered social status and careers upon arrival to the new country[26].

While proficiency in the host language is no guarantee of socio-economic advancement or social inclusion, empowering migrant students is possible through learner-centered instruction and focusing on bidirectionality [11]. According to Ennser-Kananen, J., & Pettitt, N. (2017), language instruction for migrant women has the potential to act as a "bridging" step toward participation in society and lead to a upward mobility, but not necessarily so. In fact, for some migrant women the opposite is true or English has little effect, as "L2 proficiency does not erase the discrimination that frequently accompanies migration, especially for Muslim women of colour, nor does learning a second language allow migrant women to recoup the desirable aspects of the lives they left behind" (p. 592)[11]. This acts to underscore the heterogeneity of migrant women.

Furthermore, Klenk (2017) explores UK migrant women’s access to resources as means of social integration and discusses L1 continuation measures as a way of facilitating social empowerment in the host and heritage language communities. Language centers acted as social spaces in which migrant women could reduce a sense of isolation and encourage social interaction that bolsters agency, self-confidence and effectively empowers in their lives outside and inside the home[20]. Klenk’s findings are supported by Wenger (1998)’s concept of “communities of practice” (García, p. 74)[17] and the Vygotskyian (1978) notion of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) where more capable students in the center support weaker students and raise their linguistic developmental level through scaffolding (García, p. 329)[17].


(, 2018).[22]


Cullen (2017) analyzes the way the global financial crisis and neoliberalism have impacted language instruction and social inclusion for immigrants. He claims that a lack of clear language policy and restrictions have shifted the responsibility of migrant immigration to the private sector or to individuals themselves. However, he also asks whether this flexibility has also driven innovation in these areas and outlines programs that have started as initiatives from the social communities themselves[8].

One example of the local level policies to support immigrant learning and acculturation in action is the case of the Hamburg bilingual schools[9]. Faced with growing numbers of immigrants, the city of Hamburg responded by piloting a series of bilingual schools and programs in German and the languages of the largest migrant groups in Germany, namely Turkish, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. Through the dual-language model of teaching used the educational achievement gap was significantly lessened as students were building subject-matter knowledge and language skills at the same time.

The Future

What will the future of language policy look like for migrants in the European Union? The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provides an international migration outlook annually. This gives the most current updates on policy changes at the national and international level and effects these policies have on migrant individuals in the workforce. The 2018 booklet may be accessed online here:[24].

In the chart below, Christiansen (2006) summarizes an extensive list of possible language policy scenarios in the future[4]:

1. Baetens Beardsmore, H. (2009). Chapter 9: Language Promotion by European Supra-national Institutions. In O. García (Author), Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective (pp. 197-217). Wiley-Blackwell.
2. Bian, C. (2017). The potential of transnational language policy to promote social inclusion of immigrants: An analysis and evaluation of the European Union’s INCLUDE project. International Review of Education 63:475-494.
3. Bruzos, A., Erdocia, I., & Khan, K. (2017). The path to naturalization in Spain: Old ideologies, new language testing regimes and the problem of test use. Language Policy, 17(4), 419-441. doi:10.1007/s10993-017-9452-4
4. Christiansen, P. V. (2006). Language policy in the European Union: European/English/Elite/Equal/Esperanto Union? Language Problems and Language Planning, 30(1), 21-44. doi:10.1075/lplp.30.1.03chr
5. Council of Europe. (n.d.). Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants homepage. Retrieved from
6. Geralt. (2017). Integration. Licensed under CC0. Retrieved from
7. Coquimbano. (2016). German Visa in Belarussian Passport. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Retrieved from
8. Cullen, J. (2017). Migrants and the Language of Instruction: Is the EU Policy Deficit Driving New Innovations in Social Inclusion? International Review of Education, 63(4), 453-474.
9. Duarte, J. (2011). Migrants’ educational success through innovation: The case of the Hamburg bilingual schools. International Review of Education, 57: 631-649.
10. Dubois-Shaik, F. (2014). Analysing ‘Migrant’ Membership Frames through Education Policy Discourse: An Example of Restrictive ‘Integration’ Policy within Europe. European Educational Research Journal, 13(6), 715-730. doi:10.2304/eerj.2014.13.6.715
11. Ennser-Kananen, J., & Pettitt, N. (2017). “I want to speak like the other people”: Second language learning as a virtuous spiral for migrant women? International Review of Education, 63(4), 583-604. doi:10.1007/s11159-017-9653-2
12. EUR-Lex Access to European Union law. (n.d.). Retrieved from
13. European Commission. (2017). Education and migrants. Retrieved from
14. European Commission. (2018). Education and migrants. Retrieved from
15. European Parliament. (2017). Language policy. Retrieved from
17. García, O. (2009). Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A global perspective. Malden, MA: WileyBlackwell.
18. Ham, S., Yang, K., & Cha, Y. (2017). Immigrant integration policy for future generations? A cross-national multilevel analysis of immigrant-background adolescents’ sense of belonging at school. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 60, 40-50. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2017.06.001
19. Kelly, M. (2015). Recent European Union initiatives in support for languages. European Journal of Language Policy, 7(1), 85-112. doi:10.3828/ejlp.2015.6
20. Klenk, H. (2017). An Alternative Understanding of Education and Empowerment: Local-Level Perspectives of Refugee Social Integration in the United Kingdom. European Education, 49(2-3), 166-183. doi:10.1080/10564934.2017.1341290
21. Marksman003. (2018). German Passport Refugee 2017. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Retrieved from
22. (2018). Inspiration Innovation Idea Thought Imagination. Licensed under CC0. Retrieved from
23. Migrant Integration Policy Index. (n.d.). Education | MIPEX 2015. Retrieved from
24. OECD. (2018). International Migration Outlook 2018. International Migration Outlook. doi:10.1787/migr_outlook-2018-en
25. Oslo Recommendations Regarding the Linguistic Rights of National Minorities and Explanatory Note. (1999). International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, 6(3), 359-387. doi:10.1163/15718119920907703
26. Rodin, L., Rodin, A., & Brunke, S. (2017). Language training and well-being for qualified migrants in Sweden. International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care, 13(2), 220-233. doi:10.1108/ijmhsc-11-2014-0043
27. SIRIUS – Policy Network on Migrant Education. (2018). Mission. Retrieved from
28. UK Government Digital Service. (2017, July 21). Family visas: Apply, extend or switch: Knowledge of English. Retrieved from
29. World Economic Forum. (2018). 4 maps that will change how you see migration in Europe. Retrieved from
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