To fight loneliness, Irish pensioners are teaching English to migrants

Social conversation classes help both newcomers and retirees

Across Europe and the United States, surging anti-immigrant politics have been attributed to the influence of older voters. Nearly two-thirds of over-65s in the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016. But in more than 100 communities in Ireland, elderly volunteers have been quietly defying that stereotype.

Projects offering English classes to new immigrants are common, but Fáilte Isteach is unusual. Most of its tutors are retirees and the organisation that runs it, Third Age, is a charity dedicated to working with the elderly, not immigrants. It doesn’t employ professional teachers or offer a route to an English-language certification.

Fáilte Isteach, Irish for “welcome in”, aims as much at drawing isolated people — both pensioners and immigrants — into their community as it does at speeding up language learning. Its novel approach has found many enthusiasts, and the program now helps more than 3,000 migrants each year.

New arrivals need help

Third Age began the Fáilte Isteach project in 2006, in the midst of a rapid change in Ireland’s demographics. Ten new countries joined the European Union in 2004, and a construction boom brought a wave of their citizens — newly permitted to work across the EU — to the country.

“There were an awful lot of people living here who didn’t speak the language and couldn’t integrate,” said Liam Carey, Fáilte Isteach’s program manager. Families became dependent on children to help them navigate society. “Doctors were telling us that kids as young as six were coming in and translating a diagnosis.”

Formal English education was available, but not always easy to access for those in work or without much spare money. Fáilte Isteach aimed to fill that gap by connecting migrants with local volunteers. “They learn the language at least, but they also get to know the local community,” Carey said. “That breaks down the barrier that can exist between host communities and new migrants.”

The program started in Summerhill, a small village outside Dublin, with 12 volunteers. Over eighteen months, about 70 immigrants attended the conversation classes, leading to a national expansion with the support of a wealthy donor.

Despite having only three permanent staff, Fáilte Isteach now has 113 centres across Ireland. The central organisation offers initial training and guidance to tutors, and provides teaching material. All the teaching — more than 72,000 hours a year — is delivered by 1100 local volunteers, the majority of whom are over 60.

That puts limits on what the program can aim to achieve. It doesn’t have the same goals as formal classes, according to Carey. “We’re teaching them the language that they’ll hear on the street,” he said. A session might focus on the language needed to fill out particular government forms.

Over time, Fáilte Isteach has developed more structured materials, covering grammar and linguistic rules as well as everyday vocabulary. But the relatively informal nature of the classes helps keep them manageable for tutors without qualifications or experience in teaching.

It’s also important to fostering a sociable atmosphere, one of the main aims of the project. Third Age makes sure that new centres in the Fáilte Isteach network are firmly rooted in a local community.

“We want students to get to know a person who they might meet on the street,” Carey said. Volunteer tutors from the local area will be able to recommend a mechanic to fix a student’s car, or invite them to a sports club, as well as helping them learn the language. Previous generations of immigrants to Ireland are often less integrated because they weren’t able to develop early connections with the local community. Third Age’s approach could help avoid that.

Old hands make all the difference

But social isolation isn’t just a problem for immigrants. Third Age’s core mission is to support retirees to continue participating in their community. That helps avoid the risk of loneliness, and combats the stigma attached to the elderly.

“The talk around older people in Ireland can be quite negative — ‘pension time bomb’, ‘bed blockers’,” Carey said. Volunteering brings health benefits and helps give structure to retirees’ lives. “The oldest volunteers we have are in their late 80s. It’s good for them, but it’s also fighting that stereotype than an older person is dependent or socially excluded.”

It leads, according to Carey, to a triple win. Migrants are able to learn English and enlarge their social circle. Tutors get a health boost from volunteering and continuing to engage with their local community. And wider society benefits from both migrants’ English skills and the deeper social connections they help produce.

“Stronger communities are built when people get to know each other,” Carey said. “There’s been no kind of anti-immigration party getting any sort of hold in Ireland yet. And we’d hope, in our own small way, to be able to fight that.” — Fergus Peace

(Picture credit: Pxhere)

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