When I was invited to help asylum seekers to practise speaking English, my brief was to "just give them something to stop them giving up hope until they can get into an ESOL class". ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) is regarded as a Basic Skill for those who have come to live in a "majority native English speaking country".
A social model for Basic Skills When we want to help adults acquire this Basic Skill, it's important to remember that they already have a load of skills and experience, hopes, dreams and aspirations to bring to their learning. So in our conversations it's worth looking for what people can do instead of what they can't do. What can they teach us about their experience of speaking in their first language, and of learning or "getting by" in other languages? How can we nurture their hopes as 'waking dreams'? Back in 2004 I did some research on the UK "Skills for Life" programme, in which I questioned the focus on trying to remedy a perceived lack of individual competence in Basic Skills (a deficit model). I argued that we could focus instead on the skills that we need (as literate, native speakers) to help people get around the obstacles put in the way of participation in work, learning and social life by demands for English language and literacy, (a social model). You can read about this research here Whose Skills? Whose Life?
A politics of hope My assumption in recruiting volunteers to engage asylum seekers in conversation is that we are united in a dream of a fairer and more inclusive society. In our shared commitment to sustaining hope as a "waking dream" we have to acknowledge that our work is political. My work in adult education since the 1970s has been underpinned by Paulo Freire's politics of hope. Through my work on this current project, I want to show the continuing relevance of this politics to the task of helping asylum seekers to acquire confidence in using language to participate in all aspects of our society. You can read more about this approach here: Reading Paulo Freire in the 21st Century.