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SPEAK: language learning and community building


The SPEAK programme was created to facilitate the sharing of linguistic and cultural knowledge. Through the programme, anyone can volunteer to teach their own language and culture, as well as participate as a student in learning a new language and culture. It was started as a pilot project by the Association Fazer Avançar (based in Leiria, Portugal).

The idea underpinning the project is to bring people of different backgrounds together in order to respond to the social challenge of migrants’ exclusion by breaking down the language barrier. The project also focuses on culture and community building, and allows migrants to take the lead in teaching their language and culture, increasing their sense of self-esteem as they become part of the solution.

Issue/challenge and goal/assumption


SPEAK aims to contribute to eliminating the social exclusion of migrants and refugees. There are several reasons for a person or family to leave their country, whether it is the need to fight for a better life or the urgency of a war scenario. The problem of integration is felt in the challenges encountered when people reach their destination: language, culture, lack of an informal support network. Communities of different cultures or nationalities tend to isolate themselves. In addition to these problems, there is ethnic and religious discrimination and xenophobia, leading to social exclusion.

SPEAK addresses the two main causes of social exclusion:

  1. the language barrier
  2. the lack of meeting opportunities to get to know the ‘other’

Through a language and cultural exchange programme for local residents, migrants and refugees, SPEAK allows people from different cultures to meet, learn and be interested in one another and to overcome language barriers.


How does it work



Language groups of between 4 and 18 participants are organised in various cities across Europe. Interested participants can sign up to join a group on SPEAK’s website. Each language group meets for 12 sessions, with each session lasting 90 minutes. There are two levels for each language: a basic level for those who are beginning to learn a language and a conversational level for those who already have basic knowledge but need to practice and develop their skills.

The courses are low-cost (€29), with scholarships available so that no one is left out. The course format encourages participants to get to know each other and thus create a support network while increasing their linguistic knowledge.


Participants who volunteer to give lessons, called ‘Buddies’, commit to setting aside 3 hours per week for 12 weeks to prepare and give lessons. Buddies are often also students in other courses (which they can attend for free). 


SPEAK Ambassadors (people from the SPEAK community who help to organise activities in each city) organise weekly events. These events are open to the community at large and aim to bring people together and build relationships between them, helping not only in their language development but also by including them in community life. The events can be of various types: linguistic exchanges, quizzes, treasure hunts, thematic dinners, etc.


Classes take place at SPEAK’s partner organisations, which work directly with the project’s target audience. Potential participants also find out about SPEAK through social media advertising and recommendations made by other participants.


Innovative aspects of SPEAK

  1. Community-based: Language group participants are agents of change and not passive recipients of help. Participants assist each other in the learning process and organise events. They also help each other overcome challenging situations, such as finding a job or getting access to the national health system.
  2. Language courses to build relationships: SPEAK uses the need and motivation to learn a language as a way to bring together migrants and local residents. All participants are equal, and as they learn or help others learn languages and cultural knowledge, they build meaningful relationships.
  3. Breaking barriers through empathy: During the 12 weeks of the course, participants meet and get to know each other. They become more aware of the ‘other’ and different cultures, and they share their histories, thus breaking down prejudices, barriers and stigmas and making new friendships.
  4. Uses technology for impact: SPEAK increases impact through its technology. The experience is delivered and organised through an Online2Offline model, where web technology enables efficiency by managing all processes (payments, registration, materials, etc.), reducing manual work and giving scalability to the project. However, the courses and group meetings all take place offline, given the importance of face-to-face interaction.




SPEAK is currently a community of over 22,000 people spread across 19 cities in Europe. Since 2014, SPEAK has completed more than 630 courses, and its community has organised more than 270 events. In 2018, SPEAK launched in 7 new cities using a social franchising model, and it expects to reach a total of 20 cities by the end of 2019.

Results from the project show that participants gain a greater sense of inclusion. There are dozens of real-life examples from the project, including these examples from Portugal:

  1. V. (female), from Mexico, participating in Leiria, Portugal. She joined the project as a Buddy (teacher) and as a participant to learn Portuguese, due to difficulties in integration that she experienced which were related to her Portuguese language skills. The project helped her so much in her new life in Portugal that she started a SPEAK chapter in another city, Aveiro.
  2. N. (male) came to Portugal without speaking Portuguese and without knowing anyone. Through SPEAK, N. learned Portuguese, taught French and even met his girlfriend, who was a Portuguese Buddy at SPEAK. Today, N. has his own business providing tours in Lisbon, a city that he considers his city too.
  3. K. (female) is from Syria and migrated to Portugal to pursue her studies. She did not speak a word of Portuguese when she arrived. She found SPEAK by chance and fell in love with the project’s mission, later deciding to start her own chapter of SPEAK in the Portuguese city of Braga to help migrants like her feel at home.
  4. F. (female) came from Libya accompanied by her family and learned Portuguese with SPEAK. She did not have any friends or know anyone when she arrived. Little by little, she started to create a network of friendships and today is one of the SPEAK Buddies in Leiria. She teaches Arabic to anyone who wants to learn and also shares her famous chocolate cake with the participants.




SPEAK uses the methodology of ‘distance travelled’, which measures changes in responses given by participants over time. Participants respond to questionnaires at the beginning and at the end of the 12-week courses. The questions are posed in a strategic way so that it is possible to gauge relevant results on the impact generated by the project.

The project’s main impacts can be divided into three axes:

  1. Increase of 15% in the feeling of belonging to the city where participants live
  2. Decrease of 30% in the existence of a language barrier
  3. Increase of 40% in the feeling of appreciation of the other culture


Who will benefit?


The target groups of SPEAK are both migrants and refugees, as well as the community at large. Participants are both beneficiaries of the project, as well as active agents in organising and building the project.

In 2020, the project also made all its online classes free to everyone all over the world during the COVID-19 pandemic - read more here.

Source of funding and Resources used


Each participant pays €29 for a 12-week course. There are scholarships available to cover these costs. In addition, funding comes from the coordinating institution’s own capital and grants provided by two foundations (Fondazione CRT and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation).

The SPEAK global team includes:

  • 1 CEO
  • an operations team with 7 employees (including 4 project managers)
  • a marketing team with 3 people
  • a financial team of 2 people
  • a business development team of 2 people



Share Your World
Hugo Menino Aguiar
Project's presentation in Portuguese
(2.18 MB - PDF)

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