Published on August 16th, 2016


Programme StimuLER: Supporting Language Development in Refugee Children

Feature image caption: Andrea Macleod and Sabah Meziane run a training session on refugee children for teachers who work with Syrian refugees.

By Riana Topan

Over the past few months, the influx of Syrian refugees to Canada has prompted many people across the country to ask themselves what they can do to help. In November 2015, SAC Director-University Andrea MacLeod, PhD, was approached by one of her students and a fellow S-LP, Sabah Meziane. Sabah suggested that she and Dr. MacLeod work together to develop a language stimulation project. Shortly afterwards they launched Programme StimuLER (STIMUlation du Language des Enfants Réfugiés) to support refugee children from Syria. The project assists refugee children in learning a second language — either English or French — while they maintain their native language. In May 2016, StimuLER received an award from the Muslim Association of Canada in recognition of its work to welcome Syrians to Canada.

To learn more about the project, I chatted with MacLeod and Meziane, who are running the project out of MacLeod’s research lab at the Université de Montréal. We talked about the role that S-LPs, teachers, parents and others can play in helping refugee children adapt to life in Canada without losing their first language, which often represents an important part of their culture. Read on to learn about how the project came to be, what they hope it will accomplish and how they hope their work will inspire other S-LPs to get involved.

An Idea is Born

MacLeod and Meziane began work on this project shortly after it became apparent that Canada was going to welcome refugees into the country and that Montreal was going to be one of the main intake sites. “I was personally thinking about what I could do to help,” says Meziane, explaining that she had been specifically interested in helping young children when they arrived. The idea for StimuLER was born when she realized that many of the children coming from Syria may not have gone to school, and that they would need a good language acquisition program once they got to Canada. It seemed that meeting this need was the perfect way for S-LPs to help out.

MacLeod’s observations confirmed the gap in existing programs. She noticed that although there are often ESL and FSL activities planned for school-aged kids, preschool children do not usually have the same tools for integration. MacLeod stressed the importance of bilingualism in the refugee context. “Having strong abilities in their home language is important, and in addition to all of the other stresses they’re facing they don’t need to lose those abilities as well.” MacLeod explained that the StimuLER program eases the transition for parents too, who want their children to learn English or French but aren’t able to teach them themselves.

Mobilizing Other S-LPs

After launching the project, one of the first things Meziane and MacLeod did was write letters to politicians at all levels regarding the role of the S-LP in supporting incoming Syrian refugees. A few of these politicians — such as the office of Mélanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage and MP for Ahuntsic-Cartierville — have responded to express support for Programme StimuLER. Then, in mid-February, Meziane and MacLeod began hosting weekly language stimulation groups for children and their parents. They hope to expand the project by recruiting other S-LPs and speech-language pathology students who can help with running the groups in Montreal. The OOAQ has announced that participation in this project counts as professional development for S-LPs. Audiologists in Montreal have also expressed an interest in being involved, by offering hearing screenings to the children.

While discussing her goals for the project, MacLeod mentioned that she wanted to encourage other S-LPs to mobilize upon learning about StimuLER. “I see that S-LPs have a role to play in welcoming families to Canada and that they can provide support by preventing problems before they arise, rather than focusing on identifying existing ones as we usually do.” She and Meziane would love to see S-LPs in other cities run their own local stimulation groups and are happy to help by sharing their resources and lessons learned.

Stimu-LER volunteer
A Université de Montréal S-LP student
volunteers with refugee children
as part of Programme StimuLER.

The pair is also currently working on the project’s website (, which will house information and resources for S-LPs, teachers, parents and others for supporting the language development of refugee children. The resources will be available in English, French and Arabic and they will cover the topics of bilingualism in a refugee context, language development in refugee children and an overview of the StimuLER project. Meziane and MacLeod plan to continue adding to this collection of resources over time.

MacLeod and Meziane want the website and Programme StimuLER Facebook page to become a forum where S-LPs and others can share their ideas and experiences for supporting dual language development in Syrian refugee children. They encourage parents, families and community members to join the conversation too, so that we can strengthen our ability to support all refugees who come to Canada. “The project is ultimately for Syrian refugees but it can be adapted for other refugees as well,” notes Meziane. “Syria is in the media a lot right now but it would be great to have a program in place that can be shared and developed to help other refugee communities.”

A Work in Progress

For MacLeod and Meziane, one of the most surprising discoveries was just how little we know about language development in refugee children in general. Although many S-LPs focus on prevention and language stimulation, there is little research on adapting techniques to different cultural settings and serving this particularly vulnerable population. The absence of available information on the subject of supporting language development in refugee children is the reason Programme StimuLER has so much potential. It’s about developing a tried-and-true system that leverages the preventive role of S-LPs while respecting the difficult situations that refugee children have lived through.

Beyond that, one of the main goals of the project is to convey the fact that becoming Canadian doesn’t mean only speaking English or French. “The reality is that you don’t have to let your home language go, and there are many benefits to keeping up strong abilities in a first language while learning a second,” MacLeod explained. Syrian parents are relieved to find that their children can learn English or French as a second language without giving up Arabic.

The language stimulation groups are still a work in progress, but MacLeod and Meziane are already seeing the value. Preschool-aged children who are not eligible for traditional ESL or FSL classes have been very happy to take part. And shortly after the meetings started, a private Armenian school contacted Meziane because they now have a number of Armenian Syrian refugee students, and they are interested in learning more about supporting the dual-language development of these new students.

Although Programme StimuLER is still in its early stages, MacLeod and Meziane are optimistic about its ability to aid refugee children. They believe in the importance of dual language development and in working with other S-LPs to share insights, ideas and information about how to best adapt prevention and treatment techniques to different cultural settings.

If you are interested in supporting the stimulation groups in Montreal or starting your own program, please contact Meziane and MacLeod at

About the author:

Riana Topan, Communications Assistant, SAC

Riana Topan joined SAC in 2012 as Communications Assistant, working on our e-communications, our website and our Awards and Recognition Program. After two and a half years of excellent work, Riana was promoted to Communications Specialist (acting) in 2015. At this point, she also took over managing Communiqué. Now, we are pleased to announce that Riana’s dedicated hard work and impressive resume have garnered her an internship with the Aga Khan Foundation in Uganda. We are sad to see Riana go, but so proud of her accomplishments.

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