In lockdown we continued with classes, moving online rapidly and working alongside community organisations to help address the challenges of digital exclusion faced by many people seeking sanctuary. The move online also led to a new element of Talking Hull’s work: our twice-weekly Discussion Group. Initially an informal conversation class supplemental to our more formal classes, the Group has now become central to our activities. Its development has been driven by a remarkable group of University of Hull students who were determined to stay connected and help others stay connected during the isolating conditions of lockdown. The Discussion Group still meets twice a week online and includes University staff, students, people seeking sanctuary and guests from the local community. Discussion topics are decided by the group and can range from linguistics to education, from marriage to tattooing, and from humour to food.
We also work in partnership with the local Refugee Council New Roots team supporting people seeking refuge into employment, training and higher education. Championing inclusive access to education is a key part of being a University of Sanctuary, and a large number of people have joined the University of Hull and are now studying in every faculty after being supported by this partnership work.
Following best practice in contemporary language learning, active communication is central to Talking Hull’s approach to teaching and learning. Activities are also informed by the theories and practices of informal education, an approach that can sometimes be misunderstood. In a society where we often think of education as a rigidly structured, accreditation-driven process, it is easy to assume that informal education means ‘casual’, ‘ad hoc’ or ‘just fun’. While it is true that Talking Hull is immense fun, its real-world outcomes demonstrate the value of language teaching facilitated through informal education.
The experience of people who have participated is probably the best way of demonstrating how informality works in this form of education, beginning with the words of a member of Talking Hull who arrived in the UK during lockdown as a person seeking asylum and whose initial aim was to improve their English:
"[A]s a teacher, I have taught from elementary school to university. I say this because I know that a teacher has to study hard and spend a lot of time to teach very well. [The] university […] eagerly manages Talking Hall despite all the university works. I didn't know much English when I joined Talking Hall, [but] he and his lovely group helped me a lot."
Nassima, a doctoral researcher in linguistics, talks about the way Talking Hull works:
"Talking Hull discussion group is an excellent opportunity for anyone one who seeks to improve his/her English (particularly speaking) regardless of one’s level or motivation to learn. It uses an unconventional and very flexible approach to adapt to all the different needs of the participants and the diversity of the group. Maybe one of my favourite aspects of this group is that it a stress-free and friendly environment, and highly interactive. We discuss different topics ranging from very simple, banal and fun to very deep, constructive and informative ones. I also appreciate that it offers equal opportunities for everyone, from the organiser to the newcomers, whether in terms of expressing oneself or in deciding on the content of the sessions. I personally learned a lot from […] all the other participants and I’m grateful for […] the opportunity to join this group and meet all those brilliant and knowledgeable people"
Ahmad, an experienced language teacher who has taught internationally and is now studying for a postgraduate degree in Education, had this to say about how mutual support has worked for him:
“I came to the UK in October of 2020 to my MA in Education at the University of Hull. I came here with my family. It was not easy. The country was going into its second lockdown, and I could not find an accommodation and had to spend the first few weeks in Hull in a hotel in a lockdown where I do not know anyone. I thought about just leaving and dropping out of the program. There was no one to talk to […] I really love the idea of Talking Hull and asked if I could be involved, and the rest is history.
“Talking Hull is a very relaxed environment where everyone gets to talk and share their thoughts and opinions about things. We talk about everything, and we share things from our own cultures. We enjoy learning about other’s habits, food, traditions, languages…etc. The most beautiful thing about this group is that no one makes you feel awkward especially if you get busy with your stuff and miss a few gatherings. Once you go back, it is the same warmth and welcoming faces.”
Tasnim, another very experienced teacher who is studying in the School of Education, talks about the importance of listening (as well as talking)
“Talking Hull was introduced to me by my personal supervisor as they had realised I needed a purpose and a way to help someone. However, after joining the group I understood how powerful it was to me or students like me. It gave us chance to share our opinions and we learnt the best way to show engagement is by listening to others. Our natural curiosity is being tapped every week by other participants and we are establishing a rare connection with people from all around the world even during the pandemic. We are also always at an advantage because we get to ask questions about different cultures and share our personal experiences of English culture. Every time I join the session my heart says “home sweet home” because it gives me the same comfort.”
Through the generosity of Northern Dairies Educational Trust, Talking Hull has been able to offer two scholarships for students with refugee status to pursue our MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Syeda Nudrat, the first Northern Dairies Scholar, successfully completed her MA this year. In addition to being very talented academically, Syeda brought a wealth of personal experience to the University, and the School of Education has been enriched by Syeda’s work. But Syeda also found in Hull a home where she could build further on her skills and experience:
“The Talking Hull project assisted me with a work experience during and after completing my MA TESOL course at the University of Hull. The project has provided me with a safe place to practise my teaching skills as a novice English language teacher. It helped me gain real-life experience by teaching a diverse group of learners, such as non-native speakers of English, including refugees and asylum seekers. I find it worthwhile and rewarding to help vulnerable and disadvantaged groups with their English language learning. More specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic adversely impacted face-to-face teaching and learning opportunities. Learners from vulnerable groups such as refugees and asylum seekers, including the wider communities, suffered social isolation at different levels. Talking Hull has been instrumental in bridging the gap by taking an inclusive and interactive virtual approach to ESOL teaching by introducing informal discussion sessions on a twice-weekly basis. I witnessed that the learners eagerly wait to attend the Talking Hull sessions to get socialised with native and non-native speakers of English, which facilitates their linguistic skills as well as mental well-being.”
Talking Hull activities adapt each year to the changing needs of people seeking sanctuary, but what remains constant is our emphasis on the values of respect, openness and equality. Talking as equals in an open and welcoming environment helps us all to belong, to connect and to feel safe and supported to take positive action in our own interest and in the interest of others. Beyond simply helping people to improve their English, through participating in Talking Hull members have been able to build friendships, share experiences and advice about living in the UK, receive support in accessing higher education and even find jobs.
As Talking Hull facilitator, I will allow myself a personal comment to end this article. I was scared, as the full consequences of the global pandemic became obvious, that Talking Hull work would stop. That it didn’t is testament to the extraordinary members of Talking Hull, especially our international students, who came up with new ways to talk and learn and were determined to keep the conversation going. They consistently supported one another and others (not least their lecturers) through the hardest times in lockdown, even when they were experiencing incredibly difficult times themselves. They are an extraordinary group of people who exemplify what sanctuary means in practice and why it is important—and our University would be so much less without them.