Overcoming the language barrier in Cardiff

Refugees at Trinity Center during an English  conversation class. Photo: CNP

An English conversation class at Trinity Center, Adamsdown, Cardiff. Photo: CNP

As the number of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Cardiff has risen in the recent years, so the demand for English classes. The possibility for these people to be included in the social and economic life of the City is challenged by the cuts in the funds provided by the Government to Further Education Colleges and other organisations.

South West Cardiff is one of the area that has been most affected by the recent years migration flow. People who have escaped from war-torn or poor areas have found a refuge in this part of the City, which is near to the center and has had a stable presence of several minorities for many decades. These factors have contributed in creating a space where it is possible for them to easily mix and where they can talk with someone who speaks their own native language.

To tackle the poor conditions in which many of these new and old migrants live, the Riverside Community Development Centre has been organising free English classes. However the huge demand has put more pressure on the resources available.

Allan Herbert, manager of the Welsh antipoverty program at Riverside Community Development Center. photo: CNP

Allan Herbert at the Riverside Community Development Center. photo: CNP

Allan Herbert manages the Welsh antipoverty program at the Centre. He says that the degree of investment that is needed to respond to the current demand is huge. He adds that “there are constant waiting lists within the city of Cardiff. Anything between 1800 and 2000 people are on a waiting list. They can’t event get to do a course and that’s year on year, and has been for many years now.”

The Centre is working with other organisations in Cardiff to solve the backlog, but according to Mr. Herbert this is very difficult because of the shortage of resources. “I think we can probably do with at least double the resource you’ve got in order to really progress people at a timely rate,” he says.

However, he believes that some of these people don’t aim at progressing through the college-type system, but they just want to learn the basic English that will allow them to have a ordinary conversation. Therefore, he argues that “there is still a huge amount of English language learning that is still needed in the community as a whole.”

Yasmine Hasmi, English teacher at Riverside Community Development Centre

Yasmine Hasmi, English teacher at Riverside Community Development Centre

Providing English classes to people who have different skills and educational background is a challenge according to Yasminie Hamid, who teaches English to entry-level adult students at the Riverside Community Development Centre.

“You have to think of each and every individual. How much that person can do, in order that she or he is not bored in the class, and they all are participating and discuss, whatever lessons they have, whatever topic it is. They have to feel happy to participate,” she says.

Mrs. Hamid believes that it’s never too late to learn. “I would rather have adult learners because they want to learn. They are really lucky in this center. The classes are provided free for them, at the time which is suitable for them. Especially for the mothers: they can go and pick up their kids. However, the more they come, they more they get used to listening to English and meeting people.”

To provide these classes the Riverside Community Development Centre has built partnerships with providers which are founded by the Welsh Government, namely the Cardiff and the Vale College, a further education college within the city, and the Workers Education Association, a third sector organisation that delivers further education learning using community partners.

Tudor Street in South Riverside. Photo: CNP

Tudor Street in South Riverside, Cardiff. Photo: CNP

The shortage in English courses affects Cardiff as whole. According to Allan Herbert, Cardiff uses more than 90 per cent of the resources provided for English as Second Language (ESOL) classes. Moreover, of all the resources destined to community adult learning in Wales, 67 per cent are used for this purpose.

In the recent years these funds have been significantly cut due to the reductions in the budget received by the Welsh Government from the UK Government. According to a Welsh Government official, “where possible we have protected the funding for ESOL and Basic Skills, but the reductions in funding will inevitably have had an effect on provision”.

The official also added that “this year we have been able to protect the funding, and there were no further reductions. However, we do not yet know what the funding will be for next year – there is always a danger that we will face more reductions. We will have to wait and see.”

Gavin Thomas, consultant at Colleges Wales. Photo: CNP

Gavin Thomas, consultant at CollegesWales. Photo: CNP

Gavin Thomas is a former Estyn inspector and now a consultant at CollegesWales, the body that represents further education colleges in Wales. He argues that “significantly more funding will be needed to meet the demand. Demand considerably exceeds supply by a margin probably of about fifty percent.”

He also explains that this is a problem that is increasing in scale, and that “at the hearth of that is the shortage of money: there is not enough funding to enable provider like Cardiff and Vale College to put on the necessary courses, and to appoint the necessary teachers, to deliver the courses. So, funding is at the root of the problem without a shadow of doubt. Much more could be done, more provision could be made if there was more money available.”


Jenny McDowell, leading volunteer at Space4U. Photo:CNP

To tackle this issue, some charities have tried to provide English classes or conversation drop-ins to help people who are trying to enter formal English education.

Jenny McDowell is a part-time English teacher at the Cardiff and Vale College and a leading volunteer at Space4U, a charity responsible to offer support to asylum seekers and refugees in Cardiff. Along with four other professional teachers, she holds free classes at Trinity Centre, in South East Cardiff, twice a week.

She says that the need is really huge. “What we do here is quite informal in some senses, because what we aim to do is to provide something for people who have recently arrived in the country and are on a waiting list for formal classes at the College. Now, because of they pressure on places they may wait up until a year, and sometime in excess of a year, to find a formal class in the college. So, while they are waiting for that, we can provide English.”

However Mrs. McDowell believes that ESOL classes don’t provide with the opportunity to mix or socialise with native English speakers, and that English classes and the other activities they offer are also aimed at it. She says that very often the asylum seekers and the refugees tend to live with people who are speaking their own language. “That’s why the conversation club on the Wednesday evening at Space4U is particularly important,” she adds.

Anila Abdul Ghafoor (left) with her daughter Ansa Memon (right). Photo: CNP

Anila Abdul Ghafoor (left) with her daughter Ansa Memon (right). Photo: CNP

Learning English has proved crucial for Anila Abdul Ghafoor, a teaching assistant at Severn Primary School in Canton, west of Cardiff. She came from Pakistan with her husband fifteen years ago, but due to marriage issues she was left alone with a young daughter and with bills and a rent to pay.

“When he left me I have no English at all, and no money, no food in the house,” she remembers, “police came to find out and they looked at me and I didn’t speak any single word of English.”

Social services found her an accommodation and offered English, maths and computer classes. She eventually managed to take a teaching assistant course, which led to her current job.

“On the last day of my course was finishing, the head teacher called me in his room and I though I did something wrong. He was a lovely person, was an amazing person, like a father who looks after you. It was new for me. So, he said: ‘oh, nothing to cry, nothing to cry. I’m just asking you: would you like to do the work with us?’ I was shocked,” she recalls.

With the support of the community services, the school where she currently works and her daughter Ansa, Anila hasn’t only managed to progress her career, passing this May the exam to become a third level teaching assistant. She also managed to take the UK citizenship and a driving licence. “If they didn’t supported me I shouldn’t be here,” she concludes.

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