Two Leeds University alumni have launched an educational social enterprise to train and employ refugees from academic and professional backgrounds to teach their own languages and culture in Britain. The innovative start-up, Chatterbox, has now been commissioned by the SOAS University of London to deliver 400 hours of conversation practice to their students.
Economics graduate Mursal Hedayat, Chatterbox founder, arrived in the UK from Afghanistan alongside her family, and Natural Sciences graduate Eleanor Penney’s passion was inspired from working with refugees in Leeds University Student Action for Refugees group. In the autumn of 2016, they received £15,000 and a place on Bethnal Green Ventures’ start up accelerator programme to help launch the project.
“Chatterbox teachers are doctors, lawyers, engineers and academics – highly skilled professionals with a lot to offer,” said Mursal. “It’s fantastic for them to engage in stimulating work whilst learning more about the way of life here. For our language students, there’s the enticing possibility of adding hundreds of millions of people to their friends list every time they learn a new language, in addition to all of the career and brain activity benefits.”
Chatterbox’s teacher training scheme hires skilled refugees and helps to improve their overall employability through confidence building, networking, and gaining UK work experience. The project is designed to facilitate a smoother and faster integration of refugees into the labour market.
“Most refugees in the UK are unable to find a job because they don’t have UK work experience and most of them can’t speak English,” said Eiad, a Syrian dentist and recent recruit to the programme. “A lot of them are educated and have good qualifications.”
All of Chatterbox’s tutors are native speakers of a wide variety of languages as well as being fluent speakers of English.
The prototype for Chatterbox was tested at various universities across London, and generated such demand from the students that the School of Oriental and African Studies commissioned 400 hours of conversation practice for its language students.
Lutz Martens, Dean of Faculty of Languages and Cultures at SOAS described the benefits of Chatterbox:
“With Chatterbox’s conversation practice sessions, our students are given the opportunity to add valuable language skills in an increasingly competitive global workforce. This is an engaging and innovative complement to the structure and direction students gain in the classroom, and can help prepare them for study or work abroad where the students are on their own. With Chatterbox, they can build their confidence and fluency and immerse themselves in language and culture without leaving the country.”
Not only does Chatterbox help the refugees to rebuild their professional and personal lives by capitalising on their existing skills, but it simultaneously helps to tackle the UK’s language skills shortage which is estimated to cost the economy £48bn each year.
Chatterbox will be opening up the service to individual language learners in 2017, where they will offer online and in-person language lessons in a range of languages, including three Arabic dialects, two Persian dialects, Swahili, Korean, French-African dialects, and Spanish. You can access the Chatterbox website at www.wearechatterbox.org.
(Image: Lena Garrett)