/ 4 January 2022

Tech-boosted English classes reach more migrants

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29 November 2021: At the end of the lesson Rhoda van Schalkwyk sends the students their homework in the class’ WhatsApp group. Together the students decide on a gif to accompany the homework.Photographer: Barry Christianson

When Mike* arrived in South Africa about a year ago after leaving his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he knew he would need to learn English to adapt to his new home. Leaving Lubumbashi, Mike’s path followed that of so many others arriving from the DRC in search of a safer and better life in South Africa. He settled in Cape Town, like his two brothers, but with little to no English, his adjustment to a new city was made even harder. 

The language barrier often proves to be a big hurdle for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It complicates not only the already arduous process of getting documents and finding work, but also their day-to-day activities such as buying groceries. 

Mike decided to enrol for English classes at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town. This non-profit organisation works with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the Western Cape to help their cultural, social and economic integration into local society. Besides advocacy work, the centre also offers legal assistance and skills training. 

“[I took the English classes] for help with my life. It is important to speak English in this country. For now it is fine, but before it was very difficult,” Mike said after attending a class at Scalabrini in the city centre. “For now, I am working in a restaurant as a waiter. But I want to do another job when I finish with the English classes.” 

Scalabrini’s classes have helped hundreds of new arrivals learn English in Cape Town, but with the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns forcing students to stay home, the tutors had to adapt to a hybrid method of teaching. English school manager Rhoda van Schalkwyk and her team started using WhatsApp to replace in-person classes. 

“We were working in classes and suddenly, overnight, everyone had to be out of the building. So what am I now? I am nothing. So we had to convert this energy into something that still draws people in through the phone,” Van Schalkwyk said. 

“Fortunately, I am not on my own. So I developed the lessons and I had a colleague who had enough tech savvy to translate it into the platform so that we can speak through the phones.” 

Spreading their wings

Van Schalkwyk says it was a paradigm shift “from standing here and using your personality and talking nonsense to helping them speak English through a WhatsApp voice note or text”. But the experience proved valuable when in-person classes resumed. 

“We are coming back so informed. I mean, we haven’t been sitting in the wilderness. We’ve learnt to really activate engagement … So there’s the jump from personal to virtual, and now we’re at a point where we are merging back into personal, informed by our virtual experience.”

Embracing this opportunity for change, Scalabrini’s English classes now have students from as far afield as Burundi, Angola, Rwanda, Somalia, Turkey, France and India, rather than just those who can attend them in person in Cape Town. 

Following a class, all the students are given practical exercises to do and they have to respond with voice notes in a WhatsApp group. Van Schalkwyk then provides feedback that everyone in the group can see and learn from.

Pennielle*, a single woman from the Republic of Congo, or Congo-Brazzaville as it is also known, says the English classes have helped her a lot. “I’m not working right now but I want to find a job,” she said. “The classes are fine. Before it was not so good because it was difficult, but now it is fine.” 

Virginia*, who left Bukavu in the DRC and joined her family in South Africa in the middle of 2021, says she hopes she can improve her English to a level where she could get a nursing job. “I came to speak and learn and to have a chance to have a job, because for now I don’t have a job. In Congo I was a nurse, but here I can’t work because of the English,” she said. 

Eager students

About 65% of the students are women. Van Schalkwyk says she doesn’t have sufficient statistics or research on the reason for this, but suggests that it might be because South Africa is less patriarchal than other societies, or that men are often the first to find jobs, albeit it low-skilled ones. 

“So women in South Africa, our clients, are desperate to live differently, to get more opportunities. So there’s that. And women have children. All the children have fathers, but the women are largely responsible [for their care] and their children are going to school… In our last survey, 95% of our students said, ‘I can help my children with homework because of these lessons.’ Isn’t that a reason to get up in the morning?

“The women say, ‘I want to understand the schoolwork, I want to understand the letter from the school.’ If they are heads of households, they have to learn English anyway. [But] where they are a whole family and not heads of households, [they] then need English, because this is where they are nurturing their children,” Van Schalkwyk said. 

Surveys conducted after every term have found that many of the students enjoy the classes on WhatsApp. “A lot of our students are saying, ‘I need to run my life and earn money and I can give you virtual time [instead],’” Van Schalkwyk said.

She believes everybody benefitted from the development of the hybrid model. “We are richer because of what we’ve learned through the pandemic. It would have to be. Is anybody the same as they were before the pandemic? You know, we cannot sit and pine for the [pre-Covid] days. It is never going to be… 

“It’s definitely a richer world. For me it is a more real world… It’s real and in a sense this pandemic has made us more real about what we really want to do in life.” 

*First names have been used to protect their identities.

This article was first published on New Frame