5.7 The impact of volunteer initiatives for informal language learning on the integration of migrant newcomers

This project will investigate under how participation in volunteer initiatives for informal language learning (e.g. language buddy programs) can facilitate the integration of migrant newcomers in the host society (e.g. language proficiency, psychological and social integration), with particular attention to the relationship between newcomers and volunteers, and the organizational practices.

Project info

Project consists of following studies
This project will investigate under which conditions and how participation in volunteer initiatives for informal language learning can facilitate the integration of migrant newcomers in the host society. More specifically, the project analyzes 1) how the relationship between volunteers and newcomers contributes to newcomers’ language proficiency, psychological and social integration (cf. social capital, Gittell & Avis, 1998; Putnam, 2000) and 2) how this relationship is affected by organizational practices of these initiatives This project will investigate the impact of informal language learning via participation in volunteer initiatives on newcomers’ language proficiency and integration at three levels. First, with regard to the dyadic interaction between volunteers and newcomers (the relational level – intergroup contact), we expect that this interaction, under the right circumstances, will result in successful informal language learning and in both psychological and social integration (Ager & Strang, 2008). Social psychological theories about intergroup contact and cross-group friendships assume that trust, spending time together and sharing information about one’s personal life will foster high-quality interactions (e.g., Davies et al., 2011; Marinucci et al., 2021; Page-Gould & Mendoza-Denton, 2011). People who spend more time and disclose more about themselves can more easily relate to each other, which may foster interaction and thus the opportunity to practice the language. Potentially, volunteers and newcomers may develop cross-group friendships as a result of their contact. Thus, we expect that frequent interactions between a newcomer and volunteer will increase interpersonal trust and sharing of personal information, which should lead in ‘high’ quality interactions and an improved language proficiency. Second, at the organizational level, volunteer initiatives differ in focus, format, preparation of volunteers, the matching of volunteers and newcomers, and the extent to which initiatives take the needs of newcomers into account. The project will investigate how variation in these organizational practices affect the emergence and quality of collaborative efforts of newcomers and volunteers. For example, research in organizational sociology indicates that preparing volunteers for their tasks positively affects their volunteering satisfaction and commitment, and increases volunteer retention (Cuskelly et al., 2006; Studer & Von Schnurbein, 2013), thereby fostering more meaningful and durable interactions with newcomers, and thus to fostering language proficiency and integration. Furthermore, we will study the impact of the organizational practice of matching volunteers with newcomers based on similarity characteristics. Similarity between volunteer and newcomer (in terms of age, interests and locality) could be favorable for informal language learning and further integration. It may contribute to engaging interactions when volunteers and newcomers talk about topics that are interesting to and relevant for both. Similarity may also mean that the social networks of the volunteer can be activated to assist the newcomer. For example, if the newcomer is looking for a job in the same sector where the volunteer works, this could facilitate access to social capital in the volunteer’s network that could facilitate finding a job (see Oranje Fonds, 2021, based on PhD research supervised by Sabine Otten, e.g., van Niejenhuis et al., 2015). We will investigate whether this practice of matching on similarity characteristics indeed has a positive influence on language proficiency and integration. Thirdly, individual characteristics of volunteers (e.g. previous experience with newcomers, motivation to volunteer) and newcomers (e.g. goals, motivation to join, trauma) will be analyzed regarding their potential impact on the relationship between newcomer and volunteer, thereby complementing SCOOP project 4.3 on the motivation of volunteers who engage in activities with refugees.
Project start
End date
Behavioral theory
  • Networks
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
  • Newcomer
  • Social dilemma
  • Policy advisors
  • Social psychology
  • Sociology
Work package
  • Inclusion
Sustainability threat
  • Spillovers
  • Accommodating newcomers
  • Connecting communities
Theoretical background
The project will combine social psychological theories (e.g., on intergroup contact, Allport, 1954) with research from sociology (e.g., on volunteer organizations and social capital) to offer new insights into the impact of volunteer initiatives on newcomer integration. The project contributes to the aims of SCOOP by exploring which factors contribute to sustainable cooperation between volunteers and newcomers, and how volunteer initiatives can stimulate inclusive practices. The project complements the ongoing SCOOP projects 4.1 and 4.5 on the labor market integration of newcomers, as well as SCOOP project 4.3 on the motivation of volunteers for helping refugees. Learning the language of a new country of residency is key for the integration of migrant newcomers. Newcomers who speak the local language have a better chance at making and sustaining new contacts, finding work and getting to know the host society’s culture and way of living (Ager & Strang, 2008). Indeed, a recent longitudinal study showed that social connections between newcomers and members of the host society proved to be crucial for newcomer language ability to foster well-being (Tip et al. 2019). High quality social contacts help migrants to access information and resources, and help them to feel full members of society (Marinucci & Riva, 2021). Learning the language can thus trigger a positive feedback cycle leading to successful integration. Informal language learning combines these two important aspects of integration, namely language learning with intergroup contact. Informal language learning can be defined as “any activities taken consciously or unconsciously by a learner outside of formal instruction that lead to an increase in the learner’s ability to communicate in a second (or other, non‐native) language” (Dressman, 2020, p. 4). An example is meeting a Dutch volunteer and engaging in conversations about everyday topics. Informal language learning complements formal instruction by allowing language learners to practice their language skills in more natural settings that resemble daily conversations. In the Netherlands, opportunities for informal language learning are often provided via volunteer initiatives. These initiatives draw on volunteers who are matched with newcomers to engage in all kinds of informal language learning activities, such as having a chat, playing games, etc. Through this social contact with Dutch volunteers (or social bridges; Ager & Strang, 2008), migrants can not only improve their language skills, but also get to know the Dutch culture and norms of interaction. That these volunteer initiatives are highly necessary is illustrated by consistent findings that newcomers wish to get into contact with Dutch people more often (e.g. Vermeulen, 2021). The relationship between newcomer and volunteer is crucial: only through a collaborative effort of the two, informal language learning can be successful (Vickers et al., 2017; Stock, 2019). Therefore, the relationship that evolves between the volunteer and the newcomers is at the center of this project: we aim to systematically investigate the interplay of informal language learning and intergroup contact between matched volunteers and newcomers and their effect on newcomers’ language proficiency and psychological integration in the host society. To the best of our knowledge, to date research on informal language learning mainly focused on self-assed language proficiency (e.g., Tip et al., 2019) or test scores (e.g., Chiswick, & Miller, 2003) and formal language learning in a physical class setting (e.g., Kuschel et al., in preparation; van Niejenhuis et al., 2015). We still lack information on the effects of informal language learning on integration in a broader sense.
Research design
In this project, we will collaborate closely with leading societal actors in the field that facilitate informal language learning for migrants and especially newcomers (e.g. Kletsmaatjes). The respective organizations have indicated to need systematic research to make evidence-based decisions to ensure that their interventions are need-based and (cost) effective. At the same time, this research allows us to broaden our understanding of the role of informal language learning and host society contact on relevant outcomes of newcomers’ integration. We aim to contribute substantially to this field by combining our expertise from social psychology, cultural psychology and organizational sociology, and by applying mixed-methods from the respective disciplines (quantitatively and qualitatively, by focusing on individual level data such as newcomers’ language proficiency, number and quality of social contacts, perceived integration; on the dyadic interaction such as disclosure and trust; and on organisational level such as the preparation and procedures in place). Longitudinal and cross-sectional mixed-methods (observations during meetings, in-depth interviews and surveys) will be applied to analyze at least three volunteer initiatives. Data collection techniques will be adapted to the cultural background of a specific target group (Hansen & Heu, 2020). Data analysis comprises both between and within case comparisons.
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