With language learning refugees can settle into their new lives. A Portuguese company is moving online to reach more migrants, despite the COVID-19 crisis

By Chris Welsch

Since its founding in 2014, Speak has aimed to help immigrants integrate into communities, using language learning to break down barriers. The coronavirus pandemic has created a new set of barriers.

Based in Portugal, Speak operates in more than 23 cities and 11 countries. Before the pandemic struck, small groups organised by Speak would gather in face-to-face meetings and get to know each other while practising a new language. The crisis caused Speak to suspend the gatherings that underpin its business and underlined the need to tackle this problem in a new way.

“When everyone is at home, we thought that maybe there was an opportunity to still help people be connected and help create those relationships of support,” says Hugo Aguiar, who lives in Lisbon and is a cofounder of the company. “So, we adapted Speak into an online model that allows anyone, anywhere to join a Speak language group. This is our small contribution to fight social isolation and make sure everyone can stay connected.”

Language learning around the world

The online language groups consist of 10 daily 90-minute sessions (Monday to Friday) for two weeks, with two levels available — basic and conversational. Groups are led by “buddies” from all over the world who are fluent in specific languages and who welcome small groups of four to seven participants.

During the crisis, Speak is offering a “pay what you want” service, allowing participants to contribute whatever they choose. The contributions help Speak reach people who cannot afford to pay, such as refugee families. Hugo says this new online model is working.  

“We have had more than 3,500 applications, and refugees located in Syria, Greece, Spain, Italy, UK and Portugal, as well as people like you and me in other places, are participating. The feedback so far has been very positive.”

Speak is a past winner of the European Investment Bank Institute’s annual Social Innovation Tournament, which supports entrepreneurs who are making an impact on social, ethical or environmental issues in their communities.

The company works with various public institutions, including the Portuguese government, which adopted the group as one of its top three mainstream solutions to help integrate migrants and refugees into society. Before the crisis, the fee for individuals who wanted to participate was about €30 for 12 sessions, and it was free for those who lead the language groups.

Hugo says that Speak’s goal is to reach 5 000 people during the second quarter of 2020 and to help people like Ahmed, a participant from Iraq, who told the Speak team: “I am grateful that you are helping me and my family learn a language. The sessions you offer are great and you make learning become easy. We love how the sessions are led and appreciate you making us feel at home.”