Reallocation of Resources for Teaching English to
Syrian Refugees in North America: A Note of Caution

Dec 22nd, 2016 | By | Category: Opinion
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Hedieh Najafi

Hedieh Najafi


—With the Syrian war in its fifth year, millions of Syrians have become displaced inside and outside Syria. Just in 2015, 1.2 million Syrians were pushed out of their homes (Rodgers, Gritten, Offer, & Asare, 2016). Out of the millions of displaced Syrians, thousands have found refuge in English-speaking countries. Already there are 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada (Kennedy, 2016) and 3,000 in the US, with the provision of 7,000 more (Tolan, 2016). In addition, the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees (Ralby, 2015).

As knowing English is the main means of integration into an English-speaking society, it behooves these host countries to provide the Syrian refugees with English classes. The sooner and faster the Syrian refugees learn English, the sooner and faster they will be able to integrate into society. For instance, Canada already has a road map for refugees in general and Syrian refugees in particular. Canada has put in place The Languages Canada Syrian Refugee Integration Initiative, and the affiliated language programs have donated seats for this purpose (Languages Canada, 2015).

However, as a result of the influx of Syrian refugees in Canadian ESL classes, there will be an overload of students in these classes. For example, New Brunswick has already faced an overload of Syrian ESL students in ESL classes. In November 2015, Bonnell reported in CBC News that New Brunswick had announced that it did not have the ability to provide English classes for the 300 Syrian refugees already in the province; this announcement was made at a time when the number of Syrian refugees in New Brunswick was to go up to 1,500. Consequently, New Brunswick announced its readiness to delegate this issue to the private sector.*

One of the main reasons for ESL classes to be overloaded with Syrian students is the lack of trained ESL instructors. With some reallocation of resources, a country such as Canada or the US might be ready for the influx of Syrian ESL students. Many North American, particularly American, ESL instructors have the training and experience of teaching Arabic ESL students, and they might be available in the job market.

Since 2005, North American ESL instructors, especially those at university language programs, have been working with ESL students from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). This opportunity was made available to these instructors as a result of KASP (King Abdullah Scholarship Program) funding for Saudi students to study at universities outside the KSA (Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau, 2014).

The abundance of Saudi students flooding ESL programs gave ESL instructors an opportunity to work and gain experience with Arabic-speaking ESL students. Today many ESL instructors who have been in the field for the past 10 years are seasoned enough to deal with the English issues of Saudi students. These ESL instructors, in dealing with Arabic ESL students, believe that they know what pronunciation lessons to prepare, which grammar points to emphasize, and how to tackle culturally sensitive issues.

However, recently there have been reductions and budget cuts on the Saudi side that will result in a noticeably smaller number of Saudi ESL students (Kottasova, 2016). As the budget cuts are so recent, there have not yet been any statistics to show how the budget cuts have affected the number of Saudi ESL students. Despite the fact that no statistics are yet available, the lower number of Saudi ESL students will result, if it has not already resulted, in loss of jobs for ESL instructors. Consequently, there will be many ESL-trained instructors in the job market.

English-speaking countries such as Canada can avoid the issue of Syrian ESL students’ overloading ESL classes by tapping into the pool of trained ESL instructors. This provides an excellent example and opportunity for reallocation of resources; that is, North American ESL instructors who have lost their jobs because of a decrease in the number of Saudi international students are the best candidates for the job opportunities provided by the presence of Syrian refugees. Among their other qualifications, they have a good amount of experience with Arabic-speaking students, that is, Saudi students.

On the surface this seems to be the perfect situation, as it is very simple to fall into the trap of overgeneralizations such as that both Saudis and Syrians have Arabic as their official language, and both countries are in the Middle East.

However, ESL instructors should employ their experience with a note of caution when preparing their ESL classes. They have to be aware that differences between Saudi and Syrian ESL students should have implications in pronunciation and cultural lessons as well as lessons with culturally sensitive issues.

For example, when it comes to English pronunciation lessons, the Arabic language of the two countries must be treated as different.

As Najafi and Najafi-Asadolahi (2013) have warned, when teaching pronunciation to ESL Arabic-speaking students, the instructor has to be wise enough to consult the LAD (Local Arabic Dialect) inventory of sounds and not exclusively the MAD (Modern Standard Arabic) inventory of sounds. This caution comes into play when North American ESL instructors trained with Saudi students encounter their Syrian ESL students. If they are not aware of the Syrian LAD, they might be focusing on pronunciation lessons that are not useful for the Syrian ESL students on the one hand. On the other hand, they might ignore lessons that are necessary for these students. For example, while /d͡ʒ/ is a necessary lesson for a Syrian ESL student /ʒ/ is not; this is in sharp contrast to the case of a Saudi ESL student.

When teaching Syrian ESL students, another pronunciation phenomenon that North American ESL instructors might come across is the role of gender in Syrian LAD, a phenomenon that they might not have necessarily encountered when teaching their Saudi students. For example, while a pronunciation lesson on /g/ might be an essential lesson for a female Syrian student, it might be redundant for a male Syrian student. (For more information on the Syrian LAD see Al Masri, 2016.)

To add to the complications, it is worth noting that not all Syrians speak only Arabic. The Armenian, Kurdish, and Assyrian languages are among some of the languages that some Syrians speak. Considering the dimensions of the Syrian civil war, there is a high possibility that some of these Syrians are present in the Syrian ESL crowd. The fact that these students have other sound systems will have its own implications for pronunciation lessons.

Therefore, policy makers need to play two roles. First, they need to gear up ESL programs to reallocate resources by tapping into the already experienced ESL instructors. Second, they need to raise awareness of the differences between Saudi ESL students and Syrian ESL students. These steps will ensure that the resources will be used to their maximum capacity.

Hedieh Najafi, PhD, after receiving her doctorate and then teaching at Arizona State University, recently joined KIC (Khawarizmi International College) in the United Arab Emirates. Her research interests include but are not limited to ESL classroom practices and multilingualism.


*Both English and French are of concern in the case of New Brunswick; however, for the purpose of this article, only ESL and its related issues are discussed.


Al-Masri , M. (2016). Colloquial Arabic (Levantine): The complete course for beginners (3rd ed.). Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Bonnell, I. (2015, November 27). Language teachers preparing for influx of Syrian refugees.
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Kennedy, M. (2016, March 1). Canada says it has met its goal of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees. Retrieved from

Kottasova, I. (2016, February 9). Saudi Arabia cuts funding for students abroad. Retrieved from

Languages Canada. (2015, November 27). Languages Canada to support Syrian refugee integration initiative. Retrieved from

Najafi, H., & Najafi-Assadollahi, S. (2013, February). English pronunciation for ESL Arabic speakers: A new approach. Retrieved from

Ralby, A. (2015, November 16). Syrian refugees and the need for English language training. Retrieved from

Rodgers, L., Gritten, D. Offer, J., & Asare, P. (2016, March 11). Syria: The story of the conflict. Retrieved from

Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau. (2014). The King Abdullah scholarship program.
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Tolan, C. (2016, March 29). In Houston, Syrian refugees are starting new lives amid adversity. Retrieved from


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