Immigration in Slovakia: How English Lessons can improve Social Justice
A view of The Castle hill and Old Town in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

Older generations of Slovaks still remember the negative experience of communism, when any contact with the West was subject to scrutiny and even investigation. In the communist years Slovaks only had blurred or distorted information about the western world, and everything extraordinary was considered to be bad. On the other hand, the stereotypes of the younger generation are mostly rooted in the disinformation and fear of terrorism. Children at school would consider every pen friend from an Arabic country to be a terrorist or put an African into the role of an antagonist, when creating a story.

Migrants from other countries comprise only about 1.3% of Slovak population. Nevertheless, there is a significant Vietnamese minority - a remnant of student exchanges between Czechoslovakia and the socialist partner from East Asia. People from the Middle East and Turkey can be found not only in the notorious kebab stalls, where we often see them. Many of them have established themselves in corporate jobs. The identity of their children is first of all Slovak, as many of them were born here. Still, many of them still encounter negative attitudes.

Social justice is not only the problem of Islamists. The south part of Slovakia is known for the tension between Slovaks and Hungarian inhabitants, exacerbated by one overtly patriotic politician from a nationalist party. Besides, Slovakia was also repeatedly reproached by Brussels for its ill treatment of the Roma minority. The majority of them live in  communes and it often seems that they do not want to fit into the society. Some people use the issues around Roma integration as an excuse to reject the quotas on migrants. Perhaps such people can’t be blamed for such a narrow-minded understanding of the issue of immigration, because they are just making a decision based on their experience and information. We should instead blame them for not being able to choose reliable and independent sources of information and not being critical. Media often do not explain even the most basic terms, and the message of the article is lost or distorted. It is a simple problem of reasoning. People hear that Muslims are terrorists and therefore they assume that every Muslim will be a potential danger. But according to sociologists, less than 1% of all Muslims (about 1.6 billion) belong to a radical movement.

The problem calls for a solution but it won’t come at once; it will take several steps. One of them was suggested by the ELT Forum in Bratislava – a conference for English teachers that took place at the Economic University in early June 2015. English for Social Justice was the subject of a workshop by Rakesh Bhanot, an English teacher and teacher trainer. Apart from vocabulary and grammar, English lessons can be used to develop life-skills that help us understand different cultures and fight prejudices.

'Teaching English isn't only about vocabulary and grammar rules, or development of communicative skills' said Rakesh. From my own teaching experience, I know that what happens in the classroom is both influenced and controllable by the environment. Therefore, we should also include topics that contribute towards the right development of the students, for example social justice.

Kids often forget to bring their textbooks, but their beliefs and prejudices are with them all the time. We can build on them. And they come out unconsciously during practising a language. Children are more aware of the world around them than we think and it can be dangerous. That’s why Rakesh stressed the importance of social justice drills in the classroom.

First of all, we have to differentiate between a migrant, who leaves his homeland voluntarily in search of a better life, and a refugee, who was forced to leave due to some kind of danger. Secondly, we must make people take a more objective look at the problem. If your country is at war and your life might be ended every day by a mine, would you stay there? Most people would prefer life in a safe and secure environment, even if that means having to do doing a menial job in a foreign country, far away from home. We see only one part of the story and, unfortunately, complete it according to our experience, knowledge and prejudices. There is a broader context that encourages people to leave their countries which we can’t change. Nevertheless, we can at least attempt to make some improvements by educating people about the problem.

Teachers and educators should be conscious of their role in the process of forming the next generations. We should not forget that it will be them who will take care of our pensions. If they grow with prejudices against certain groups of people, how can they take care of them later?