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language learning in the digital age

Inside Babbel: Refugees Welcome

Posted on February 1, 2016 by

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For the past two months, volunteers from Babbel have been visiting the LAGeSo refugee centre in Berlin’s Bundesallee to distribute free online German courses. Sam Taylor talked to some of the project’s participants to find out more about their experiences.

“But why did you come here?” pressed the 20-something Syrian we’ll call Ahmed.

“London is so much more beautiful!”

“Well,” I began, but trailed off. I’ve had the London vs. Berlin conversation plenty of times since I arrived in my new home. To be frank, it’s getting old.

That’s when I finally twigged to something I thought I already knew. Ahmed was pretty normal. Here I was, talking to a man who’d been through things I can’t fully imagine in order to reach this waiting room, and I was actually beginning to tire of the conversation topic.

I mean, of course he was normal. So were all the other refugees I’d spoken to – they just so happened to be fleeing a war zone. I knew that, and so did all of my colleagues who have recounted similar revelations in the past few weeks. But until you meet some of the Flüchtlinge you’ve been reading about and engage them in mundane conversations, it somehow doesn’t sink in.

“Things in Berlin are very different from Calais,” explained Giulia Raffaello, Executive Assistant to Babbel’s Product & Engineering team. Giulia has previously spent time with refugees in northern France’s infamous ‘jungle’ camp, and she immediately noted the contrast between that situation and the one in Berlin.

“Things are a lot more desperate in the jungle. The most pressing concerns are basic things like food, water and shelter. Here, things are much more settled – these people are coming to the end of the nightmare.”

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The refugees that arrive at the LAGeSo on Bundesallee have already made the difficult journey to Germany. With the bare essentials of life no longer such a pressing issue, they’re able to turn their thoughts to building new lives – administrative processes and language learning included. That’s where we step in.

“It’s not necessarily life and death,” says Babbel CEO Markus Witte. “But there’s certainly a lot more at stake for these people than there is for someone who wants to brush up before a holiday. Learning German will make an enormous difference in these people’s lives.

“And I think the benefits go both ways. From the very beginning, I felt that we were hugely privileged to be able to work with these people. After meeting them for myself, I know that to be the case – it really helped me as a person to understand the situation.”

Giulia, Markus and I are among dozens of Babbel volunteers that have been spending time at the LAGeSo over the past two months. We visit in pairs, two people for every day of the working week, and distribute free Babbel courses to help the refugees learn German.

“We arrived at the Bundesallee early in the morning,” recounts Junior Technical Product Owner Aria Jones. “It was cold, and there was already a line of people waiting behind a barrier.

“Skipping the queue and entering the building ahead of them was kind of uncomfortable – it was somehow a poignant reminder of our privileged position.”

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With a little help from the guards, volunteers navigate the building’s network of corridors and stairwells to emerge in Waiting Area 2, a large, carpeted room encircling a courtyard and smoking area one floor below. Windows line most of the walls, but the room is lit mainly from the fluorescent bulbs overhead.

“There was a mix of young and old, women and men,” continues Aria. “Most people looked exhausted and weary, as well as bored.

“We tentatively made an announcement in German and English to let everyone know where we were from and what we were doing. People seemed interested, but also a little confused. A couple of friendly English-speakers stepped in to helps us explain, and people soon began to gather around.”

Thanks in part to the woes of public wifi, repeatedly setting up Babbel accounts gave the volunteers plenty of time to get to know some of the refugees waiting for their appointments.

“It was sad that I couldn’t help everyone, or take them home with me,” says Gaia from Customer Services. “I’d have liked to stay in touch with some of the people I met.

“Before I went, I was anxious about the whole thing. You read the news, and see things on TV, but you really don’t know what to expect. I think it took me about a week to sort through all the feelings, but looking back now… I’d do it all day, every day if I could.”

CMO Arne Schepker, a relatively recent addition to the Babbel team, also paid a visit to the centre: “It’s amazing to see how much motivation everyone has to learn German and integrate into the country. They’ve been offered the opportunity to start a new, better life and they’re grabbing it by the horns. Every little help we can offer is graciously accepted.”

That’s something that’s been repeated by almost everyone who’s participated in the project thus far. By and large, once you’re able to explain the product to someone, they immediately see the benefit.

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“People were a little skeptical at first,” admits Arne Gerdes, Product Owner. “They thought we were either from the media, or trying to sell them something. It’s not always easy to convince people they can trust you, but once we explained, they soon opened up. They were all very happy with the courses – I even had someone come back to show me how much they’d learned.”

Product Manager Raphael Menezes visited together with Gerdes and also believes that getting past the barrier of “what are you trying to sell me?” is key to helping people at the centre.

“Once people understand, they’re incredibly grateful” he tells me. “plenty of them even manage a ‘danke’. I met a guy who had been to the centre at least once before and spoken one of our colleagues. He’d been using Babbel since then and was making real progress – ‘pretty cool’ he said.”

“I had a bottleneck of people who wanted to sign up,” recounts Markus’ Executive Assistant, Lisa Rieh. “But I had a willing volunteer who helped to get others started with the app. I also met a boy of around 13 who began to learn the moment he got the chance. Within about ten minutes he came back to try out his German on me!”

Aside from providing people with the tools they need to learn a new language, we wanted to make sure that we offered them a warm welcome, or as CRM Manager Giovanni Perrucci put it: “to be a friendly face and a good experience for them.”

“People respond very well to a welcoming gesture,” says Markus. “Just the idea that someone wants to go there and help is very powerful.”

That much became evident early on in my exchanges with Ahmed. In the five minutes or so I spent talking to him, it became clear that as helpful as a German course would be, he was just as happy with the opportunity to have a friendly conversation. The sentiment is especially true, however, in the story of an Iraqi man that SEM Manager Pedro Werneck relayed to me:

“The first thing he said to me was: ‘English? Please, help me! I don’t want to stay in Germany. I just want the papers so I can go back home! Please send me back home!’

“It was his second week of coming to the Bundesallee, and he was beginning to doubt that the government would help him at all. I gave him a Babbel voucher anyway and spent some time talking to him about my experience in Germany. After all, as a Brazilian, I’m an immigrant myself.

“Just as I was leaving for the day, he was called in for his appointment. He was so happy, he ran all the way up the stairs – what a change!”

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Comments

I am enjoying learning Spanish but I entered the correct words on two items and was told they were wrong. I did it 3 times and am getting discouraged over i

Hi Rachel, thanks for getting in touch. If you’re having problems with the app, please get in touch with support@babbel.com and they’ll be able to help you out.

Dear Babble Team,
I’ve been learning with Babble for more than two years now (Italian and French) and I really am very happy with it. There’s just one drawback in the French lessons: compared with the Italian ones, diversity apects are a bit underdeveloped. There are hardly any pictures of Asian or African looking people in everyday contexts like family, health, leasure etc., and especially not in positions such as doctor, teacher, professor, boss …There is one picture where a man with African aspect is asked whether he has passed the test for his driver’s license – thar one is really below the belt, I think. The representation of gender is also a bit problematic: lots of hysterical ladies unable to find their tickets or glasses, wifes buying sweaters for their husbands, mothers worrying about the health of their 30-year-old sons … straight from the 1950ies.
Maybe I’m overdoing it a bit, but the difference to the Italian course is really striking.
Best wishes
Susanna

I have interest in becoming a member of your team.. where & how do I sign up. Is this a pay as u go thing? I can get paid to teach English? I’m going to give it a shot. I want to learn Spanish for years now. I’m also a ‘freelance’ writer who is just getting starterd. Endless opportunity is a value for u & me. I’m good at networking. Please contact me . If I sound like a good team player..then I have accomplished my goal. Now let’s get started.

Hi Patricia,

Thanks for getting in touch. You can see all of our current vacancies here: http://jobs.babbel.com/en/

Best,

The Babbel Team

Hi there,

I just read your article and there’s actually something i’d thought about in the past that i would like to ask you. When i came to berlin in september, i’ve been living with a group of young refugees in an hostel for some months.
i could follow their lifes and activities and i’m still in contact with some of them.
Today, they have german classes but honestly it’s not quality, it’s not regular, sometimes they won’t have nothing for a month and those guys need something structured and before all, they need to be able to express themselves in german and english.

I saw that you gave vouchers to refugees, that would be awesome if you could help that group too. At least, there are two of them who speak french like me so that i can help them with the app if they need. Could we share about this idea ?

Thanks in advance guys,

Marc.

Thanks for getting in touch, Marc. We look at these things on a case-by-case basis, so the best thing to do would be to get in touch with our customer service team via support@babbel.com

I love learning spanish and Babbel has really helped me!
thank you!

-Emily

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