Stories > Gift of Language

2017 • Issue 3

Gift of Language


Naturalised Singaporean Sazzad Hossain aims to build a more inclusive Singapore by equipping migrant workers with English language skills so that they can communicate with locals.


t 11, he was a Bangladeshi immigrant in Singapore who knew little English. At 15, he was teaching Bangladeshi migrant workers basic English on a park bench near his Lakeside home in Jurong. At 19, while still in junior college, he started the Social Development Initiative (SDI) Academy in 2013, with the goal of developing affordable English language classes for migrant workers, taught in their native languages. He even came up with his own teaching materials, releasing his first textbook in 2014.

Today, Sazzad Hossain is a 23-year old naturalised Singaporean who has just started undergraduate studies at Nanyang Technological University. He has just published his second textbook, Dr English, to help migrant workers learn how to communicate in basic English. As for SDI Academy, it is now a social enterprise whose aim is to build a more inclusive society by empowering migrant workers and refugees with language, vocational, and computer skills. The organisation now has nine centres and over 5,000 students.

“When I arrived in Singapore, I couldn’t speak English and had difficulties getting into school and making friends,” says Sazzad. “At the same time, I was interacting with migrant workers living near me and could see that their struggles were worse.”

Those workers had trouble taking instructions from supervisors, leading to problems at work and, worse, safety risks. They also could not communicate with doctors about their conditions when they sought medical treatment. Sazzad wanted to teach them the English language; the lack of this skill was a root cause of problems – being isolated from locals, with some even exploited by their employers. He also wanted a platform to help Singaporeans and migrant workers interact with and learn from one another.

Both these objectives have been met by SDI Academy. Bridges are being built between migrant workers and Singaporeans – mostly volunteers from junior colleges and universities who wish to give the workers a tool with which to communicate with locals. The organisation also brings the two communities together through social outreach programmes.

“Both sides can learn about each other’s cultures and help in each other’s learning journeys,” says Sazzad. “We have Singaporean volunteers who facilitate the lessons to help migrant workers learn English better. At our social events, the workers teach participating locals about their culture, such as by sharing with them a dish from home.”

He says the migrant workers who graduate from SDI Academy’s courses do better at the workplace, and that a significant number are getting promoted to roles like Safety Coordinator. Many have also gone on to obtain diplomas, and three are doing their degrees at PSB Academy. One alumnus – Saiful Islam – even spoke at a TEDxNUS event on March 18, advocating for an inclusive society.

Sazzad says: “When advocacy comes from a migrant worker, I feel it’s a lot more powerful. People can see there’s not much difference between the two communities, so they will be more willing to reach out to each other.”

Sazzad acknowledges that support from different quarters, including the Singapore International Foundation with its Young Social Entrepreneurs programme, the DBS Foundation, and raiSE (Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise), helped SDI Academy get off the ground in 2013. “We use practical, scenario-based learning that is applicable to life at work. These include self-introductions at work, safety briefings, and seeing a doctor,” says Sazzad, adding that SDI Academy now has two full-time curriculum developers and eight professional teachers who work part-time.

Its Everyday English course comprises 16 two-hour weekly sessions held over four months. The workers’ course fees are not enough to sustain the social enterprise, so Sazzad relies on grants, funds from business competitions won – like the Singapore International Foundation’s 2014 Young Social Entrepreneurs programme – and employer sponsorships.

“ Both sides – Singaporeans and migrant workers – can learn about each otherʼs cultures and help in each otherʼs learning journeys. ”

Sazzad Hossain, founder and CEO of SDI Academy


Recently, students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic ran an online crowdfunding campaign to sell T-shirts printed with the slogan, “Trust me, I’m no stranger”, priced at $25 each. Every T-shirt sold means one Dr English textbook goes to a migrant worker. A pleased Sazzad says that in this way, his language education work “becomes a movement of inclusivity”. His aim? To give away 100,000 books in the next six months with help from corporate sponsors.

SDI Academy’s outreach programmes, picnics, excursions, and performances usually take place on public holidays. On Hari Raya Puasa this year, migrant workers visited Singaporean Muslims’ homes, so that the former could enjoy the festive season with locals and the latter could gain better understanding of the workers. During Ramadan this year, an iftar (the evening meal at which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast) was hosted by students from River Valley High School. The students interacted with Bangladeshi migrant workers and learnt more about their culture.

Meanwhile, current affairs are addressed in SDI Academy’s classroom discussions, with topics like gender equality, protecting the environment, as well as local social norms and etiquette, making an impact on the migrant workers. Sazzad shares: “Many of them come from rural parts of Bangladesh, where women’s education is not encouraged. So the workers are spreading the message of education for all to their families back home, and encouraging their siblings to go to school. This is a holistic development that is not only good for migrant workers, but also their families.”

SDI Academy runs social outreach programmes, picnics, excursions, and performances on public holidays, facilitating interaction and friendship-building between migrant workers and Singaporeans.

Since late last year, SDI Academy has been conducting design-thinking workshops in schools to show students how they can better design solutions and programmes for different communities, by understanding the beneficiaries’ points of view. And in March this year, the academy partnered charity institution Robert Bosch Foundation to conduct a workshop in Berlin for 20 Germans and 20 Syrian refugees. The participants came up with programmes and solutions on issues like housing, healthcare, food, and social cohesion for the refugees.

Cross-cultural learning is a common theme across all SDI Academy’s programmes, says Sazzad. “In the classroom, the mode of engagement is more focused on learning. At social outreach programmes, people interact while having fun together. In design-thinking, it goes deeper, into how to initiate programmes and design solutions.”

Going forward, he hopes to work with the Ministry of Manpower so that when migrant workers arrive, they can head to SDI Academy for an orientation programme encompassing language class, as well as training on safety rules and regulations, and in social norms and culture.

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