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

Aim of the project

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

Background/state of the art

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. 

Overview of the project

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.

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: Kletsmaatjes, Groningen Verwelkomt and Vluchtvoorwaarts. 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, organizational sociology, and pedagogics, and by applying mixed-methods from the respective disciplines (quantitatively and qualitatively, by focussing 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 (see Table 1). 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.

Table 1. First planned example studies. All societal partners confirmed their participation.

Case study

Focus, format, matching procedure, volunteer preparation

Planned study design 


National initiative of foundation ‘Het begint met taal’

·        Language-specific focus

·        Predominantly online

·        Structured matching

·        Yes, cultural sensitivity training + contents-based advise for interaction

Cross-sectional study with currently participating volunteers (N~200) and newcomers (N~200)

Longitudinal study with starting volunteers (N=50-100) and newcomers (N=50-100)

Groningen Verwelkomt

Local initiative in Groningen city

·        No language-specific focus: social interaction and activities

·        Predominantly offline

·        Less structured matching

·        Little volunteer preparation

Cross-sectional study currently participating volunteers (N=50-80) and newcomers (N=50-80)


Local initiative in Groningen city

·        No language-specific focus: social interaction and activities

·        Matching procedure and volunteer preparation are in development

Longitudinal study with starting volunteers (N=40) and newcomers (N=40)

Project initiators

PhD candidate Eline Heikamp, as part of the PhD Fund application procedure of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, University of Groningen

Supervisors: Sabine Otten (promotor, Social Psychology Groningen), Nina Hansen (first co-promotor, Social Psychology Groningen), Liesbet Heyse (second co-promotor, Sociology Groningen)






Social Psychology, Sociology


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Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Addison-Wesley.

Chiswick, B. R., & Miller, P. W. (2003). The complementarity of language and other human capital: Immigrant earnings in Canada. Economics of Education Review, 22(5), 469–480.

Cuskelly, G., Taylor, T., Hoye, R., & Darcy, S. (2006). Volunteer management practices and volunteer retention: A human resource management approach. Sport Management Review9(2), 141-163.

Davies, K., Tropp, L. R., Aron, A., Pettigrew, T. F., & Wright, S. C. (2011). Cross-group friendships and ntergroup attitudes: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(4), 332–351.

Dressman, M. (2020). Introduction. In M. Dressman, & R. W. Sadler (Eds.), The Handbook of Informal Language Learning (pp. 1-12). Wiley-Blackwell. 

Gittell, R., & Avis, V. (1998). Community Organizing: Building Social Capital as a Development Strategy. Sage Publications.

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Kuschel, A., Hansen, N., Heyse, L., & Wittek, R. (in preparation). Combining language training and work experience to empower refugees. A mixed-methods training evaluation. Manuscript in preparation.

Marinucci, M., & Riva, P. (2021). How intergroup social connections shape immigrants’ responses to social exclusion. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(3), 411–435.

Marinucci, M., Maunder, R., Sanchez, K., Thai, M., McKeown, S., Turner, R. N., & Stevenson, C. (2020). Intimate intergroup contact across the lifespan. Journal of Social Issues.

van Niejenhuis, C., van der Werf, M. P. C., & Otten, S. (2015). Predictors of immigrants’ second-language proficiency: A Dutch study of immigrants with a low level of societal participation and second-language proficiency. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2015(236), 75-100.

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Page-Gould, E., & Mendoza-Denton, R. (2011). Friendship and social interaction with outgroup members. In Moving beyond prejudice reduction: Pathways to positive intergroup relations (pp. 139–158). American Psychological Association.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster.

Stock, I. (2019). Buddy schemes between refugees and volunteers in Germany: Transformative potential in an unequal relationship? Social Inclusion7(2), 128.

Studer, S., & Von Schnurbein, G. (2013). Organizational factors affecting volunteers: A literature review on volunteer coordination. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations24(2), 403-440.

Tip, L. K., Brown, R., Morrice, L., Collyer, M., & Easterbrook, M. J. (2019). Improving refugee well-being with better language skills and more intergroup contact. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(2), 144–151.

Vermeulen, F. (2021). Open armen en dichte deuren. Percepties van Syrische en Eritrese statushouders over hun sociaal-culturele positie in Nederland. Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau: Den Haag. Retrieved from

Vickers, M., McCarthy, F., & Zammit, K. (2017). Peer mentoring and intercultural understanding: Support for refugee-background and immigrant students beginning university study. International Journal of Intercultural Relations60, 198-209.



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