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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey part 3: Settlement


‘The hardest thing is the language.’ (Adult female)


Most of those interviewed in Nepal and at the end of the Mangere orientation programme had expectations that improving their English language ability would be a primary focus during the first stages of settlement. This chapter explores English language acquisition and improvement; what help have people had and what has their progress been since settling in the community?

English language acquisition

One of the most important factors associated with settlement is the acquisition of the host country’s language. The ability to speak the language, in New Zealand’s case English, is critical for almost all aspects of everyday life such as; inclusion into the labour market, social interactions, understanding rules and regulations, gaining access to services, and exercising civil rights (Hamberger, 2009). The acquisition of language is dependent on several factors including incentives for learning, access to English language tuition, access to language tuition pre-departure and exposure to the language generally. The time in which it takes to learn a language also varies, and is often dependent on age and education level (Hamberger, 2009). According to Chiswick and Miller (2004) the ability to acquire a new language may also be dependent on how linguistically close the new language is to the native tongue. It has been found that English is harder to learn for those with an Asian first language (and vice versa). Not only are Asian languages quite different from English, but many also have a different script.

English language entitlements for former refugees[16]

New Zealand does not have any standard English language entitlements for former refugees. Instead, the Tertiary Education Commission provides funding for a diverse range of English language courses and organisations, from tertiary education institutions to community-based providers. It is up to individuals themselves to access these. Often former refugees are referred through the Ministry of Social Development or other agencies to appropriate courses. In addition, formal English language qualifications can also be accessed through tertiary education providers, however, these are not provided free and refugees must take out a student loan to pay for fees.

The Ministry of Education provides funding for up to 5 years of English language support for students with a refugee background in schools.


English language proficiency

The predominant language of the Lhotshampa, is Nepali, which also has its own script. However, it is estimated that up to 35 percent of Bhutanese refugees are able to conduct their day-to-day lives in English (Banki, 2008). For those who were raised within the refugee camps in Nepal, English language rates are higher, as education within the camps was conducted in English (along with Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language). For those who did not grow up within the camp environment, English language is more common in males than females (International Organization for Migration, 2008).

Amongst those interviewed during this phase of the research, 9 spoke English well; 3 females and 6 males. In contrast 11 interviewees could not easily understand English. Of these, 8 were female and 3 were male.


Before departing for New Zealand, interviewees had understood the importance of learning English. Many acknowledged that they would need to improve their English or learn English before they could enrol in education or find employment:

After arriving there we would have to learn English. I think I have to learn English. (Adult female)

Should be engaged in understanding the language. To find the job English is important. To communicate with people is important. (Adult female)

Whilst there was an understanding that English language would need to be learnt or improved, some had an optimistic view of how long this might take and how difficult it would be. One man said ‘I can understand [a] little English, might take me 4 to 5 months to learn’. Others felt that their current levels of English would be sufficient, but they worried about other family members such as wives or parents/grandparents.

English language on arrival to New Zealand

On arrival to the community, 18 out of the 20 people interviewed stated that they had received some help to improve their English since arriving in their new city. However, the type of help received, its intensity and duration has differed extensively.

As might be expected, the English language help received depends greatly on the characteristics and circumstances of the individual. The interview sample can roughly be divided into three main groups: young adults who grew up in the camps and have a relatively high level of English language proficiency; middle- aged males, who differ in terms of their education levels, and English language abilities and; mothers who for the most part are at home looking after children. These women generally had a lower level of English language proficiency than the other two groups.

Post-arrival help with English Language

Young Adults

A total of five participants were categorised as young adults. These interviewees were all aged between 19 and 27 years of age and had no children.

The younger people interviewed for this study had the greatest level of English language proficiency on arrival to the community having learnt English whilst at the refugee camps in Nepal. However, the English language learnt was often a different style or older grammar and the New Zealand slang and accent were all new. As one young man said:

[I] had an old grammar book from Nepal. The teacher said it was very old. The grammar is very hard. Here people use slang, idioms – like ‘Gidday’ and ‘watsup’.

Most of the young adults were enrolled, or had been enrolled, in full-time English language courses. Many started off in community colleges, moving to more formal courses at Polytechnics for example.

The main difficulties experienced by this group were with the New Zealand accent. Whilst many felt that they could understand English reasonably well before departing, on arrival they found that the Kiwi accent and slang used meant that they could not keep up with conversations as one young man said ‘I can’t always get the jokes that people make, the rest of the class will be laughing, but I don’t understand’.

However, of all the groups, the younger people experienced the fewest difficulties in terms of gaining access to English language tuition and education. They demonstrated a positive attitude, determination and purpose. They had come to New Zealand prepared to improve their English, and with a desire to further their education, and had quickly found ways in which to do this.

Adult males

This group of six men ranged from those who were reasonably well-educated with a high level of English language proficiency, to those who had received little by way of education and were not literate in English. They ranged in age from 29 years to 44 years. Pre-departure interviews identified that this group were likely to face the biggest challenge in terms of needing to learn English quickly to navigate New Zealand society and ultimately become independent in order to support their families. On arrival to the community all of the men in this group had received help to improve their English.

Those who were not literate in English prior to arrival in New Zealand were attending full time English language courses at both private institutions and polytechnics. For the foreseeable future improving English language was to be the focus with the ultimate goal to improve employability. One woman said of her husband:

His English is not so good so he still needs an interpreter. He goes to training, and gets help with English; this may help him find a job ... You have to be fluent in English to find a job, but even then it is hard to find one. (Adult female)

Other interviewees also made similar comments:

I have done an English language course – it is now finished. Funding has run out, but I am not satisfied. I want to learn more so I can get a job. (Middle-aged male)

The men who had some English language prior to arrival had completed full-time English language courses during their first year in New Zealand. Their next step was to gain employment or enrol in further education to improve their hopes of gaining employment.

There were several difficulties experienced for some of the men in this group when accessing English language training. Several of those interviewed mentioned that they had to go on a waiting list for several months before they were able to begin their English language courses. This delay caused some frustration. In addition, the length of free courses available was found to be inadequate, and the cost of enrolling in further English language courses restricting.


It is widely acknowledged that on arrival to a new country, refugee women experience comparative difficulties in learning English. Women face particular difficulties such as, finding appropriate childcare and a lack of transport (Department of Labour, 2004). For the eight mothers in this study, particularly those with primary school-aged and younger children, access to English language does appear to have been difficult.

The mothers interviewed in this study had varying levels of English language ability on arrival to the community. Some of the younger mothers had a relatively high level of English, whereas, some other women had very little or no English language on arrival to New Zealand. The women within this group had all received some help to improve their English. However, compared to others, this tended to be less intense and on a part time or casual basis. Many were attending formal classes for 2 hours, 4 days a week. Four mothers, as well as, or instead of formal classes, also had a Home Tutor[17] for 1 hour, 1 day a week. For the young mothers who have had babies since arriving in New Zealand, access to English language tuition had been yet more limited and intermittent. They had attended some English language courses prior to the birth of their baby but had not attended or received any English language tuition after this point.

There were several difficulties experienced by this group, particularly in relation to learning or accessing English language courses. One of the main issues was with childcare. For woman with young children and babies, the ability to attend English language classes was limited by the availability and cost of childcare:

Childcare isn’t available or I would go. Previously child care was free, now you have to pay. The benefit hasn’t increased enough to cover that. (Adult female)

I have a baby and I can’t take him to my class. You have to go every day but there is only childcare on Friday. (Adult female)

In addition to childcare issues, the lack of transport to get to English language courses had also been a barrier:

Problem is driving, if someone drives me I can go maybe three times a week. I can’t attend without transport. (Middle-aged female)

Many of the women in this group had received help to improve their English from a Home Tutor. However, many had experienced long waiting lists to gain access to this service, as one woman explained:

Had to wait for a Home Tutor for 5 to 6 months, then was taught for the next 6 months for 1 hour once a week. Once that finished I tried to find another but that took 2 months. (Middle-aged female)

In addition to long waits for a Home Tutor, many of these women also mentioned the fact that Home Tutors had stopped coming. As one woman said ‘I had a Home Tutor for 4 months then she stopped – I don’t know why’.

The interviewers witnessed this themselves first hand as during one interview a Home Tutor came around to say goodbye to a family she was working with as she was going overseas. It was unclear whether this was actually understood by the family or not.

Comments were also made about the frequency of the English language help received. That is, many of the women mentioned that because the help received was only once a week, that they had forgotten much of what was taught between sessions. As one woman relayed ‘the words learnt one week are forgotten the next week, so having lessons more frequently would improve this’.

Whilst access was an issue for many of the woman interviewed, they were eager to learn English, and were looking forward to their children being at an age where they would attend school or kindergarten so they could more easily continue with their progress in learning English.

Improvement in English proficiency

Most help to improve English

All of those interviewed were asked what had helped them to improve their English the most. Several key factors emerged. Firstly, the teachers and Home Tutors themselves had made a large difference in motivating and helping interviewees to improve their English. As one man said; the most help was a ‘very good teacher. The teacher was never angry. The teacher will try to get the feelings of the student and try to help any way they can’. Another factor for many in improving English was being able to practice with their children, who in many cases were more proficient in English than themselves. For others, attending classes and interacting with non-Nepali speakers made a difference as they were forced to speak and practice their English:

At [name of institution] I was with friends in class from Bhutan and outside the class we spoke Nepali. At [name of new institution] there are mostly Kiwis so I have to speak English. (Adult male)

English language progress

The level of progress in learning English differed between groups and between individuals, depending on their level of proficiency on arrival. All interviewees were asked to assess how their spoken English was now at the time of the interview, compared to when they first arrived in New Zealand. With the exception of one, all of those interviewed were able to say, many with a smile, that they had improved their English in some way since they arrived. One young woman even showed she was picking up Kiwi idioms in her response, ‘I think it’s much better – I understand you guys’. Some common examples of what other interviewees said about their progress are outlined below:

I began by not understanding a single word of the teacher. Now although I can’t understand whole sentence I can get the sense of it. If I can get a similar chance to learn English, in a few years I will be able to speak. (Middle-aged male)

In the beginning didn’t even know the alphabet now [I] can write my name … to communicate in English is my dream. (Middle-aged female)

More than 75 percent improved. In the beginning I didn’t understand a word. I would rather ‘not see’ people than talk to them. Now I like to talk to people. (Adult male)


There was a definite sense of pride in the level of English language obtained to date; however, there was also frustration or dissatisfaction for some with current levels of English, and the ability to communicate. Before departing for New Zealand, there was a general impression that English would not be too difficult to learn particularly by the young adults and those with a higher education. However, on arrival to the community many have found that their English language ability was not as good as they thought. That is, their ability to understand the strong New Zealand accent and the style of English language used in New Zealand was not as easy as they had perhaps envisaged before they left Nepal. Communication has been one of the biggest barriers to resettlement in New Zealand. For many it will also take longer than anticipated to get to a sufficient level of English to enrol in tertiary education or to be employable in New Zealand.

As a general impression, this group is determined to continue to learn and improve their English with the primary goal to enrol in further education and/or gain employment. It will be important for many of those interviewed, but particularly for mothers, to have continued, frequent access to English language to encourage independence and ensure they do not become isolated.

[16] Information provided by the Ministry of Education.

[17] English as a Second Language (ESOL) Home Tutors is a free in-home service run by English Language Partners New Zealand.