The Healing Power of Language Learning

More than 5,000 modern slavery offences are recorded by police in the UK every year but experts believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. Modern slavery typically involves labour exploitation or sexual exploitation and sometimes both. Around three-quarters of victims who are brought to the attention of UK authorities are not UK nationals and many speak little English. Hestia is one of the largest UK charities helping survivors get their lives back together again. We have been supporting Hestia’s work since 2018 by giving 500 survivors free access to the uTalk language learning app. Here are the heartbreaking and uplifting stories of how the app has helped two of those survivors. (Names have been changed.)

Ajola’s Story

Nineteen-year-old Ajola was thrilled when her boyfriend suggested taking her home to meet his family.

They had only met four weeks earlier in her homeland of Albania but their relationship was progressing at lightning speed. First, he’d taken her on holiday to Italy and then to France – all at his own expense.

So, when he said he wanted to take her to Birmingham, England to meet his family, she was excited and thought their relationship might be heading towards marriage. Instead, he forced her into prostitution saying: ‘I paid all this money and now you have to pay me back and this is how you are going to pay me back’. He also threatened to kill her family if she refused.

Ajola was in a strange country where she couldn’t speak the language. She was also weighed down with a heavy burden of shame. Her family followed a very strict religious code; if anyone brought dishonour to the family name, they were no longer a member of the family.  And she was scared for their safety. Frightened and alone, she was forced into a life of prostitution.

She stayed there for a year until she got pregnant and was abandoned by the people exploiting her because she had no further value to them.

She has since been referred to Hestia who are helping her rebuild her life. Her little boy is now two years old.

Hestia Manager Jenny Harrison says: “When Ajola first came to us she would answer most questions with ‘I’m fine’, she was very closed. But gradually she’s started to blossom because she now feels safe and has been able to learn English and make friends.

“It’s always a struggle for women with children to learn English at evening classes because of the lack of creche facilities and when lockdown happened she was really low. But she’s used lockdown to learn more on the app and has improved enormously! Now, if she can’t find strawberries or other food in a supermarket, she can ask for them by name. 

“And she’s learned to tell the time which is so useful for GP appointments and vaccinations.

“She is very caring and goes out of her way to peer support other women at Hestia. In the future, she’d like to be a social worker so she can help people who have been through the same experience as she has. And she knows she is going to have to work on her English to go to college and achieve that goal so the uTalk app is invaluable.

“Despite everything that’s happened, she has never resented her baby and, although he was born out of terrible circumstances, he’s been a light to keep her going.”

Jakub’s Story

Jakub is a stocky man in his 40s who is frightened of men wearing black clothes and baseball caps.

The Polish national was brought to the UK by men fitting that description on the promise of paid employment. Instead, they forced him into manual labour with long hours and no pay. He was also given drugs and alcohol to keep him under their control.

The first time he tried to run away he was caught and brutally beaten but, after several years, he tried again and succeeded.

Although now physically free, his experience has left him with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome: flashbacks, anxiety, problems sleeping and fear that he is being followed. Men who remind him of his captors also trigger feelings of panic.

When Jakub was first referred to Hestia, he would look down at the floor rather than meet people’s gaze. And he was so on edge when Hestia caseworkers first met him in a town café that they switched venues to a quiet library room instead.

In the beginning, he spoke in a mixture of broken English and Polish and tended to pitch his voice too loud, almost like shouting. Hestia think this might have been down to the frustration of not being able to express himself in English.

Now, after many months of support, his confidence has improved. He makes eye contact, is learning to talk more softly, has better English and has made friends. He also has a long-term goal – he wants to train to become a plumber.

Jenny from Hestia says: “There is a massive difference in Jakub’s confidence now and uTalk has really helped with his English skills.  I think a lot of his earlier loudness was frustration because he could not tell us what he wanted to tell us. And, because he’s learning English, he is now able to express things.

“The topics he enjoyed the most were the travel and transport ones because he wanted to feel confident getting around.  He also likes learning the names of food and drink and enjoys practising when he goes to the shops.

“But the lockdown was really difficult. The library closed, evening classes at college stopped and it was really isolating. It hit Jakub particularly badly because not only was he isolated from his support network, but being told to ‘stay home’ made him feel like he was being controlled again.

“The app was brilliant and a bit of a lifesaver because it gave him a purpose to each day so he could keep busy and keep learning.  He’s also really interested in learning Italian on the app as well. One of his friends who he met on his course is from Italy and he’s now got a passion to go and see Italy.

“He’s got a great sense of humour and is a real cheeky chappie. He’s always smiling now and his favourite words are ‘good people’ and ‘no problem!’.”

Hestia is appealing for old, unlocked smartphones to give to their clients because not everyone has a phone to use the uTalk app on. All phones should be clear of all personal data, in working condition with a charger and be unlocked with no passcode.

If you can help, please pop one in an envelope addressed to:

Hestia, Maya House, 134-138 Borough High Street, London SE1 1LB.

For Freepost within the UK, add “Freepost HESTIA” on the front of the envelope and post it from a letterbox or your local post office. 

uTalk CEO Richard Howeson says: “Big thanks to all our customers for supporting us so that we can play this very small role in helping survivors like Jakub and Ajola. We are humbled by the work done by Hestia and are continually in awe of how language learning can be such a force for good.”

1 thought on “The Healing Power of Language Learning”

  1. The stories are really shocking. Knowledge provides independence, the opportunity to work, to survive. Saving every human being is a gift. Greetings from Serbia. I wish you a happy healthy and successful New Year.


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