Language and Literacy Development in Refugee Children: Insights into Acquisition Processes from a Comparative Canadian-German Study

Katrin Lindner | Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Among migrating people refugees form a very special group.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines them as those who are residing outside their country and cannot return due to well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2002). While the development of children from immigrant families has been studied quite extensively, refugee children have not received much attention, especially their language and literacy development (cf. Crago & Hayes-Herb, 2020).

The paper will report on two transnational studies comparing Syrian refugee children in Toronto, Canada, and in München, Germany: a pilot study in 2018 and a follow up study in 2019.  Five families with 9 children participated in Canada and three families with 11 children in Germany. All families arrived in the respective countries in 2016.  A mixed method design was used:  testing students’ language and literacy skills in their first (L1) and second language (L2) and interviewing extensively parents as well as students aged 12-16 years about their learning conditions in order to find out more about their challenges and needs. In addition, their teachers were interviewed about students’ development.

Clearly, there are a number of contextual factors which distinguish the situation for refugees in Canada and in Germany (Bavaria), e.g. in contrast to Germany, in Canada permanent residence status is extended to all newcomers. Yet, despite these differences all children were similar in their low performance in academic language tests like vocabulary and word reading tests in both L1 and L2. In contrast, some of them achieved high scores in their narrative skills. Teachers reported that many of these children are highly motivated to learn but all of them are less focused and concentrated in class. Some of these findings will be discussed.


Crago, M. & Hayes- Herb, R. (2020). Special issue: The Language, Literacy and Social Integration of Refugee Children and Youth. Applied Psycholinguistics 41 (6). 

United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees. (2002). Protecting refugees: Questions and answers. Retrieved from: