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English language acquisition in the lao community of wellington: recommendations for refugee groups1

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english language acquisition in the lao community of
wellington: recommendations for refugee groups1

  • Hilary Smith


International Pacific College


In the late 1970s the exodus of refugees from the three Indochinese countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos received world attention, and from 1980 Aotearoa New Zealand was one of their countries of resettlement. More than ten years later, there were over 4,000 Vietnamese in this country, over 5,000 Khmer and over 1,000 Lao (Refugee and Migrant Service 1992). The smallest of these three groups, the Lao community, is largely unknown to the wider community of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Lao refugees left Laos in response to the 1975 establishment of a communist government. They then spent time in refugee camps in Thailand before they were accepted for resettlement in Aotearoa New Zealand. The initial group arrived in 1980, and then arranged for other family members to join them under the family reunification scheme, which is now reaching an end for the community.
A knowledge of English is essential in Aotearoa New Zealand and therefore the scope of services provided to minority ethnic groups to facilitate the acquisition of English is an equity issue (Hawley 1987). The report on the development of a New Zealand languages policy commissioned by the Ministry of Education / Te Tahuhu o te Matauranga (Waite 1992a) stressed the benefits to the whole community when there are "new settlers who feel good about themselves, because they can participate in a range of New Zealand experiences, and are productive, because they can contribute to their fullest potential."
This paper describes a research project which examined the English language acquisition in the Lao refugee community in Wellington. The study investigated language ability and patterns of language use in English, Lao and other languages by community members, as well as their need for English and their experiences of English language study. It further explored the social networks of the Lao community and the attitudes of its members towards the languages and cultures of Laos and Aotearoa New Zealand.
The paper begins with an account of the background of the Lao refugee community and how this has affected their acquisition of English, followed by a discussion of language learning policy for refugee groups. Previous studies are then described, before the methodology used in this survey is outlined and a discussion of the results is presented. Finally, there are recommendations for the improvement of language access for refugee groups.


After crossing the Mekong River into Thailand, the Lao refugees waited in camps for resettlement. Hawley (1986) points out that it was up to individuals to take advantage of whatever English language facilities were available in their particular camp, since there were no regular programmes for refugees who had been accepted for resettlement to Aotearoa New Zealand:

Regrettably, the need for and importance of a pre-departure programme has not been widely recognised. On the other hand it must be acknowledged that for New Zealand the small numbers selected from a wide range of camps has made the introduction and administration of such a programme a difficult proposition.

However, several New Zealand volunteer teachers did work in short programmes in the Phanat Nikhom processing centre near Bangkok (Hawley 1986). The volunteer status of the teachers caused problems of communication with officialdom, which affected the smooth processing of the refugees, although the programme was regarded highly among United Nations officials at Phanat Nikhom (Lyon 1988, Cochrane et al. 1993) outline some of the factors affecting the learning of English in the camps. They relate that because the camp authorities wanted the refugees to return home, the learning of English was discouraged. Other than the short official programmes, the tuition which was available was private and required payment, resulting in girls and women often missing out. They report that students who have arrived from the camps are often disoriented about time, cannot learn independently, have difficulty in accessing print and show a lack of concentration.

On arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand the initial English language lessons for official refugees are provided by the Mangere Reception Centre at the Auckland Institute of Technology in South Auckland. This is a six-week programme for each refugee intake encompassing medical check-ups, orientation skills for life in Aotearoa New Zealand, and confidence-building in the English language (Kearney 1988).
Until the 1980s the New Zealand Government had a policy of "pepper-potting", or distributing the refugees with sponsors around the country. Gallienne (1991) reports that "the policy of 'pepper-potting' put many new settlers into areas where they felt culturally and linguistically isolated." Consequently, in the 1980s a process of internal migration began towards the main centres of Aotearoa New Zealand, particularly Auckland (Gallienne 1991). Hawley (1986) reports that this secondary migration by the new Zealand Indochinese community also extended to a drift towards Australia once New Zealand citizenship was obtained, often in order to join large Asian populations in cities such as Sydney. These movements indicate that the policy of "pepper-potting" did not enable adequately strong social networks to develop in the new community.
Once resettlement throughout Aotearoa New Zealand takes place the availability of English courses for refugees varies according to fluctuating funding and the prevailing policies of the time. One widely available source of English language teaching is the Home Tutor Scheme, which provides for interested individuals to teach people in their homes on a voluntary basis. Other courses available in Wellington include those offered by the Polytechnic institutes, as well as community-based classes and some courses provided by employers.
Provision of courses for the maintenance of the Lao language has also varied according to enthusiasm in the community, and funding available. Hawley (1987) notes the problems these classes have in Aotearoa New Zealand:

Community language teaching and learning in general has little or no status in the school system, and often appears to have no purpose in the eyes of ethnic minority children, who see no credit or recognition for their efforts, should they choose to learn their mother tongue.

In discussions with members of the Wellington Lao community, similar comments were made about the "Sunday school" courses which are provided in the community. A particular problem noted was the difficulty of obtaining suitably motivating materials for the classes.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the level of English acquisition by the Lao community has not been very high. Various reasons have been proposed for this, some relating to the availability, cost and location of courses, as well as to the pace of teaching and methodology used. A further problem of motivation is identified by Vanvilay (1990):

A lot of our people are not interested in learning English. They work hard, often with a lot of overtime, and they haven't got time. Sometimes they say, "I'm working in a factory and I don't need much English."

While motivation may be low, there is also a feeling of general discontent among the Lao community with the level of proficiency achieved in English. In initial discussions held by the author with members of the Lao community in Wellington, it was reported that a high percentage are employed in unskilled factory work as a result of their low English proficiency, and that many remain unable to obtain employment in areas which would equate with the level of education they had obtained in Laos. The project therefore explored this contradiction between the lack of language need expressed in comments such as above, yet dissatisfaction with language and employment attainment. This was achieved by investigating the extent to which members of the Lao community perceived their level of English to be adequate for the various domains of their language usage, and by suggesting an explanation of the factors involved in its acquisition.

language learning policy for refugee groups

Refugee communities differ from other migrant groups in several ways which affect language learning. Because of their background, they must deal with the effects of trauma, financial hardship and loss of status.

  • The effects of trauma can vary according to the stage of resettlement. Critical periods in refugee adjustment to life in the country of resettlement have been identified (Nguyen in Mental Health News 1988). An initial feeling of optimism usually lasts for one month, before a period of several years of depression and anxiety sets in as refugees have time to reflect on the experiences they have had. A period of consolidation and optimism occurs after the third year, but this period is also characterised by problems as the families cope with new values and family roles. The symptoms of trauma affect the learning of English through poor concentration when "nightmares and memories occupy so much of their thinking" (Mollica in Mental health News 1988). The Lao have undergone the experience of a war resulting in a new political regime, flight across the Mekong River to seek asylum in Thai camps, and the process of seeking resettlement in a third country, a country with very different values and beliefs.

  • Refugees have usually abandoned all material wealth in their flight and are consequently under severe financial pressure on arrival in their country of resettlement. They then have to prioritise between language learning and employment (Crosland 1991). The decision may be at the expense of language learning, which in turn may have a further negative effect on motivation and on finding satisfactory employment. Many of the Lao left with few possessions, and after spending several years in Thai refugee camps, arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand with very little monetary wealth.

  • Refugees may suffer loss of status when the qualifications they have gained in their country of origin are not accepted in the new country, even if the language barrier is overcome. Years of retraining may be necessary in order for them to be able to work in their original field, which may mean that only unskilled work is immediately available. This can be particularly difficult for those who came from positions of influence, as Vanvilay (1990) comments about some of the members of the Lao community in Wellington,

"It's hard for them, they've been treated as high-ranked all their lives. Maybe the can't drive a car, because they've always had a driver. It's very difficult for people who have had a very high position to start again." This loss of status may have a major effect on motivation for language learning by refugee adults.

The effects of these factors on language learning may be compounded by a negative symbolism of the new language for refugees. As forced migrants, their relocation was motivated by a need to leave the home country, rather than by a desire to come to the new country. Research in the United Kingdom has shown that for some refugees the new language, and the difficulties in learning it, may come to represent all the negative factors of their situation, yet they have no choice but to learn it to survive (World University Service, n.d.).

The policy and planning of language can be viewed in terms of the relations which exist in society as a whole. Tollefson (1991) explores the ideology of language policy from the standpoint of a theory of social organisation. He concludes that an approach to language planning is inadequate where the focus is on the individual and factors such as the quality of teaching material, learner motivation or teaching methodologies are investigated. He states that the task should be to explain the societal context of the language use, to explain "the political forces of our own making". He investigates the paradox of societies investing resources in language learning and teaching while at the same time holding fast the linguistic barriers to full participation in society. Kaplan (1990) notes that in Aotearoa New Zealand a lack of central government recognition of the causes of the "language problem" has caused it to be relegated to the education sector, where the resources to solve it are not available.
The position of the Lao community is that of a minority ethnic group in this country. Any discussion of the place of minority groups in Aotearoa New Zealand has to be seen in the contest of ongoing negotiation of the rights of Māori as tangata whenua, and the debate over an emphasis on biculturalism before multiculturalism. Statements that biculturalism denies the rights of other minority groups are seen by writers such as Vasil (1988) as excuses to avoid acknowledging the unique status of the Māori and addressing their grievances under the Treaty of Waitangi. He claims that non-Māori minorities

"seem content with the present situation which allows them the freedom to maintain and sustain their languages, cultures and ways of life within their own communities based on their own resources".

Vasil's view is not endorsed by Pearson (1990), who points out that the Federation of Ethnic Councils, established in 1988, includes in its aims the lobbying for more equality with the Māori and Pacific Island Ministries:

This coalition serves to remind us that although a shared consciousness of disadvantage may unite some groups, competition for a larger slice of a dwindling economic cake also divides them.

The competition for language resources in Aotearoa New Zealand has been made clear in the report on the development of a New Zealand languages policy (Waite 1992a). Areas of language need are ranked in a hierarchy of importance in order to determine the allocation of resources. In this ranking, English language for adults comes after revitalisation of the Māori language, second-chance adult literacy and children's English as a second language as well as their first language maintenance. It comes before national capabilities in international languages and the provision of services in languages other than English (although it is also pointed out that the number of people needing English as a second language is fewer than those in the higher categories).


Refugees from Indochina were resettled in the late 1970s and 1980s in a number of countries around the world, the most significant of which were the United States, France, Canada and Australia. Indochina is made up of the three different countries of Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos, each of which have different political and cultural backgrounds. However the similarities in the situations which led to refugees leaving the countries of Indochina following 1975 has often meant that they are assumed to be a homogeneous group. In this grouping the two smaller communities of Khmer and Lao have had a tendency to be overlooked (Ngaosyvathn 1993), and research on the two communities has often been as part of a general investigation of Indochinese refugees.

Ngaosyvathn's 1991, Australian survey of 80 Lao men and women found that they gave priority to employment at the expense of learning English. Generally, the employment they found was in factories which did not enable them to improve their English:

All the respondents to my survey recognised the immediate functional importance of proficiency in English as one of the prerequisite conditions for economic adaptation/adjustment to the workforce and the new society. Yet, after one decade in Australia, many Lao women still cannot explain their health problems to their doctors in English.

However, there was a rapid shift towards English reported for the children of these families, with teenagers "just able to sustain a conversation in broken Lao". Ngaosyvathn (1993) predicts that this will lead to problems when the more vulnerable community members who rely on children for interpretation and translation, such as women and grandparents, will be left without language support as these children leave home. The Lao children were reported to be "not fully literate" in English, and therefore caught in a dilemma of not being adequately proficient in either language.

Henderson's (1989) study of the language needs of, and provisions for, South-east Asian refugees drew on a mixture of government data, questionnaires and interviews with 785 individuals, of whom 79 were from Laos. She found that progress in English language was influenced by age, with a majority of those in their twenties and early thirties having given up English lessons due to employment and "adequate" English. Older members of the sample were least enthusiastic about English lessons, while all those reported to be having difficulties with their English and studies were of secondary school age.
Farmer and Hafeez's (1989) study on the contribution and needs of South-east Asian refugees in Aotearoa New Zealand gathered data from case history files of the Inter-Church Commission on Immigration and Refugee Resettlement and from a sample of 114 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao refugees throughout the country. They reported English proficiency to be a major problem. Older refugees were reported to have the greatest problems in learning English, some of them thinking that it was "a children's job".
Booth's (1990) study of the Lao exodus and the effects of resettlement policies in Aotearoa New Zealand noted that "a significant number of the Indochinese ex-refugees now resident in New Zealand do not speak much English". He found that the younger members of the community appeared to have the role of link with the wider English-speaking community, and were often involved in uses of the language beyond their age. some of the participants in his survey identified a connection between a low level of English ability and their employment in factories, when they would have preferred clerical work.
These studies have been wider in range than the current research, in which I focused on the Lao community in Wellington, and employed a methodology which systematically sampled the whole community. This narrower focus, as well as the research orientation which aimed to work closely with the research participants, enabled a more detailed analysis of the language situation in the Lao community.


The Lao community in 1993 comprised approximately 90 households, of which 54 were located in the Porirua/Tawa area, nine in Stokes Valley, 13 in Wainuiomata and the remainder spread from Newlands to The Plateau in the Hutt Valley.

Thirty-five families were randomly selected from an updated community telephone list. All family members over the age of 12 were interviewed, which produced a total of 115 participants. Family groups were chosen both for reasons of logistics, and in order to fulfil the aims of encouraging debate about language issues. Although this method of cluster sampling meant that the results from individuals were not easily analysed, it enabled analysis at the family level for approximately one third of the households in the community.
The data for this study was collected by means of a 14-page written questionnaire. Participants chose between equivalent Lao and English versions. There were seven sections to the questionnaire: background demographic information, language ability, language use, English language need, social networks, learning English, and attitudes.
The questionnaire was administered in person with an interpreter. Working with someone known in the community helped the researcher to gain the advantage of "insider status" which has been considered very important in sociolinguistic surveys. Responses were coded, scored and added in order to arrive at total scores for language ability, social network strength and attitudes. This data is only summarised in this paper due to considerations of space and full details can be found in Smith (1994).


Language Ability

The English language is only one of the language resources of the Lao community. Other languages used include Lao and Thai and in particular and, to a lesser extent, French, Pali and other Lao languages. The two influences of French colonialism and Buddhism resulted in a situation where French was the language of officialdom, Pali the language of the temple, and Lao the language of the home. Consequently, it might not appear unusual to the Lao for them to have one language for public use, with Lao reserved for the home. The survival of the Lao language in Laos (and Isaan, the ethnically Lao area of Thailand), in spite of its history of low official status, might indicate that it would be resistant to change in the home domain in a new country of settlement. However, the situations in Laos and Thailand differ widely from that in Aotearoa New Zealand, where there is the physical and cultural dislocation which is a factor in increasing the difficulties of resisting first language loss for minority groups (Fishman 1991).

The findings of this study show that although most participants reported some ability in speaking, listening, reading and writing English, the average ratings were below half of the maximum. It was generally found that the longer the participants' time of education in this country, the higher their level of English ability. This points to the younger members of the community having more ability through their use of it at school.
English is being used in all language domains, and is correspondingly needed in all language domains. Participants reported needing and using spoken English with Lao people as well as non-Lao people in the home, at work and at school, in the temple and in the hospital, and when shopping. They also reported needing and using the other three language skills of listening, reading and writing in English. Many community members are employed in unskilled factory work, not only because their level of English is inadequate, but also because their qualifications have not been recognised in Aotearoa New Zealand. New Lao immigrants have often placed priority on gaining employment as soon as possible after arriving in this country, frequently in unskilled factory work, rather than spending time in language training. Even so, obtaining employment has not always been easy, and over a quarter of the participants in this survey indicated that they had spent up to a year unemployed.
There are indications from this study that although the Lao language is being maintained in the community, there is a shift towards English. This is happening in all language domains, including the home, and is particularly evident among the younger school-age members of the community. It was found that younger people reported a higher ability in English, and a lower ability in Lao, than older people. It was also found that younger people use English more than older people. This was supported by comments from school-age members of the community which indicate that they are not confident in their use of Lao in situations other than everyday spoken language. These findings are a strong indication that Lao will follow the typical pattern of language loss within three generations among migrant communities. Although Lao community members regard the maintenance of the Lao language as important for their children, they have found it difficult to gain resources in order to provide formal Lao language classes.

Social Networks

The households of the Lao community are situated in tight territorial groupings in several suburbs of the city, enabling the support networks of the community to function easily. For some, everyday life can be carried out almost entirely within the community. This is particularly the case for older members and some women who are not in paid employment, and those people who work with other Lao people. Thus the social networks can be said to be dense (with many individuals interacting with each other) and multiplex (with some individuals being simultaneously workmates, neighbours and relatives).

The study found that those participants with high integration into the Lao community tended to have lower ability in English and reported less need for English. This suggests that those in the community who have a low English language ability are forced to rely on the community for their social interactions. It does not necessarily suggest that they do not need English because of their strong community links. This result is confirmed by the lack of strong relationships between Lao network strength and English use, or between Lao network strength and attitudes towards language, culture or the study of English. However, there were some indications that those who were well-integrated into the Lao community were less likely to have positive attitudes towards studying English. Although this may mean that these community members do not have positive attitudes because they do not perceive a high need for English, an alternative explanation may be linked to the appropriateness of the courses. These members may be more likely to require programmes which are particularly responsive to Lao learning styles. This is consistent with Giles and Johnson's (1987) theory of ethnolinguistic vitality, in which those students more likely to conform to ethnic group norms are more sensitive to teaching methods.

Attitudes Towards Culture and Language

The ambivalent attitudes towards language and culture reported in this survey by members of the Lao community reflect the complicated feelings which refugees have towards these two expressions of their ethnicity. Their attitudes towards the English language and culture were mixed, although there were rated highly in importance. The participants generally regarded the Lao language and culture more highly than English and the culture of Aotearoa New Zealand, but they reported positive attitudes towards other New Zealanders. Participants reported that other New Zealanders understand their language learning problems, and respect the Lao language. These results indicate that a recognition of the existence of minority communities may be developing in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, the results from other sections of the survey suggest that these attitudes are fragile, and need reinforcement in order to develop further.

Most participants in the study were clear in their appreciation of their Lao tradition and heritage, and strongly believed that these should be maintained in their new country. They rated the maintenance of their language and culture very highly. This may indicate that language for the Lao is a "core value" (Smolicz 1979), holding a central position in the ideological system of the group. Language is therefore critical in the maintenance of their culture in their new country, which reinforces the importance of Lao language classes, particularly in light of the difficulties noted above that such courses have encountered.

Studying English

The attitudes towards studying English reported in this study were generally positive, although it was felt that the best way to learn English is through daily practice. Positive attitudes towards studying English were found to be a more important predictor for English language ability than attitudes towards English itself, or the culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. This would therefore indicate that English language courses need to be well planned and negotiated with the community.

It might be said that the language learning resources available to the Lao in this country follow the piecemeal pattern which they were familiar with from Laos and the refugee camps in Thailand. The most frequent methods of language study after the Mangere orientation were through home tutors, schools and self-study. These three types of study confirm that most language provision for refugees is offered by untrained or non-specialist teaches, as home tutors have minimal training and few teachers in schools have specialist training. The courses were all rated highly by those who had undertaken them, and also positively by those who had not. Community classes tended to be rated the least useful by those who attended them, perhaps indicating that these courses are seen to be less linked to job opportunities than other courses, and may relate to Tollefson's (1991) contention that refugee courses are often designed to channel learners into certain kinds of unskilled occupations. These low ratings therefore indicate a need for continued negotiation with the community, in order that the needs of the community members can be addressed in the most appropriate ways.


The following recommendations include a discussion of the social issues surrounding language provision for minority groups, in order to suggest ways to remove the linguistic barriers which exist for groups such as the Lao refugee community.

1. That language training for refugees in the country of first asylum be emphasised.
This study confirmed the need for further English language training for refugees, as many participants found their level of English ability has not enabled them to participate in the life in Aotearoa New Zealand to a level equating to their background in Laos. In the case of official refugees, language training as part of the orientation which is provided in camps in the country of first asylum is very important.
The provision of more language training before departure from the camps would help fill the waiting time before travel is authorised to the new country. Such a programme would be most useful if it were coordinated with the programme provided by the Mangere Reception Centre (Lyon 1988). The present study found that the Mangere course was well-regarded by members of the Lao community. However, the survey confirmed that for many Lao refugees finding employment takes priority over language classes. Therefore, courses provided before arrival would be more useful than expanding the Mangere programme, which is held when the new arrivals are often anxious to start their new independent lives and may become resentful at being held for further orientation (Gallienne 1991).
2. That the placement of refugee families be such that the formation of social networks is facilitated, and that ESL programmes be made available through community social networks wherever appropriate.
The importance of social networks should not be underestimated as mechanisms of support to the members of a refugee or migrant community. Their importance is clear from the level of secondary migration among the Indochinese refugee communities in Aotearoa New Zealand, away from the areas to which they were sent as part of the policy of "pepper-potting", and towards centres where there is a high concentration of people from the same ethnic background. For example, many Lao people have settled in northern Wellington, where there exist strong network ties among the Lao community.
The effects of these strong social networks is to minimise the use of and need for English for some community members. Those who were well-integrated into the Lao community were less likely to report high ability in, need for, or use of English.
The strength of the social networks among the Wellington Lao community suggests that any programmes focusing on the language needs of this community should be most efficiently administered in consultation with the community leaders and membership. This would be the most practical way of disseminating information to those community members who do not have a high ability in the English language, and would encourage the mutual support of community members in their language learning, enabling them to make known their particular needs and preferences.
3. That funding for English language programmes for migrant and refugee groups be increased.
The resources available to refugee communities for the learning of English are often short-term and unconnected after they have completed the Mangere programme. This lack of continuity in language teaching provision has negative results for both students and teachers:

  • Potential students are faced with difficulties when considering further English language training. At present funding support is patchy and changes yearly, with only some courses eligible for student or training allowances, making it difficult for students to plan financially for their study.

  • There are few full-time permanent positions currently available for English language teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that teachers are forced to work on short-term contracts for low salaries. This lack of job security means that many teachers have an inconsistent career path and the profession is increasingly demoralised. Tollefson (1991) emphasises the role of English teachers, who are at the interface of policy and practice of language teaching provision:

English language professionals can be more effective in the struggle for equality if they understand that the forces affecting their professional lives, including inadequate funding for ESL programmes, low salaries and benefits, job insecurity, and heavy staff turnover, are also those that disempower their students.

4. That specific courses be provided for refugees who have been in the country for several years.

Many members of the Lao community in this country have given priority to employment over language-learning. However, Lyon (1988) explains that this may be a short-term decision in order to gain independence in the new country, in that, "After economic security is sufficiently taken care of, the refugee then begins to realise that English is vital to really feeling at home, making friends, and getting a better job." Accordingly, he recommends courses for "old arrivals", or refugees who have already been in the country for three or four years. He suggests that these courses include an aspect of social adjustment as well as language instruction, and should as far as possible be run by refugees themselves. Courses designed for community members at this stage of resettlement would allow the educational resources of the community to be utilised more appropriately than solely in the unskilled labour force.
5. That first language maintenance programmes be developed and supported.
The benefits to children of formal training in their first language, in terms of affirmation of their own culture as well as optimal opportunity for cognitive development through their own language, also extend to providing them with an advantage in terms of the learning skills they bring to the acquisition of English. Although Lao language programmes have been set up by the Lao community and also in at least one high school in Wellington, lack of resources has meant that these courses are struggling for survival.
Waite (1992a) states that "support" should be given for language maintenance initiatives by parents, communities and schools. The recommendation from this project is that funding should be made available to schools for teachers and resources for first language maintenance courses, situated in the areas where minority language groups reside. The residential clustering of the Lao community means that the number of schools affected would be small. Incorporating such courses into regular school programmes would show a belief in the importance of such programmes, and their promotion could be achieved through the social networks of the community.
6. That there be a programme of education for minority ethnic groups and the wider public, in the benefits of bilingualism and biculturalism.
This recommendation supports that made in the discussion paper on the development of a New Zealand languages policy (Waite 1992b). There is a considerable language resource in the Lao community and more public awareness of the benefits of bilingualism would assist groups such as the Lao to be accepted as having different, but nevertheless considerable, language resources.
A complementary programme could be one such as that proposed by Lyon (1988) for the wider community in Aotearoa New Zealand, "which would show life as it was in Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam, capturing all the beauty, richness, and depth of these people's old lives". Fu (1995), in her study of four Lao teenagers in the United States, noted their lack of opportunity to tell others about their experiences; "As a result, they remain strange to others and sometimes even to themselves". Lyon (1988) recommends that the reasons for refugee groups being forced to leave should be explained and suggests that such a programme would help to overcome the prejudice that is shown towards refugees in Aotearoa New Zealand.


The results of this study showed that most of these Lao community members now have some proficiency in English. However, there is some dissatisfaction with their level of English language acquisition in terms of its translation into employment opportunities. Strong positive relationships were found between English language ability and the participants' years of education in Aotearoa New Zealand, and between English ability and their ages. Negative links with English ability were found for their integration into the Lao community, and with positive attitudes towards the Lao language and culture.

The language acquisition of refugee and other migrant groups needs to be seen in the wider context of intergroup relations in the society. In this contest the Lao community remains disadvantaged through is position as a minority groups in this society, and a lack of recognition of its special needs as a refugee group.
There has been no further development towards an official languages policy for Aotearoa New Zealand since Waite's 1992 discussion document "Aotearoa". There is now a need for policies to support the development of the linguistic resources which refugee communities such as the Lao possess. This will be to the advantage not only of the communities themselves, but also of the wider community of which they form a part.


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1 This project was made possible by a research grant from the Ministry of Education/ Te Tahuhu o te Matauranga.

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