Q&A: Robert Radin on Teaching English to Refugees

Robert Radin is the director of citizenship and immigration services at a prominent social-service agency in Massachusetts. His work has appeared in various publications and has been recognized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essays. In his new book Teaching English to Refugees (published by ibidem Press), Radin reflects on his work with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Somalia and also explores his relationship to his Jewish identity.

Q: Sometimes Teaching English to Refugees reads like a memoir, sometimes an essay, sometimes a short story. Could you talk about that?

Robert Radin: I didn’t decide on the form in advance; it took shape as I wrote. I tend not to think about form; the most important thing is for me to locate myself in the narrative, to establish what my role is. Often when I’m struggling with a piece it’s because I haven’t done this.

I always try to be direct, to dissolve the difference between me and the narrator, or attenuate it as much as possible. At the same time I don’t want to overdetermine a piece of writing, so I use certain techniques more often associated with fiction—like dialogue—to give the reader space to interpret. The form of this book is a function of that, of my attempt to resolve this abiding tension, to reconcile my desire to be both present and absent.

Q: You draw certain conclusions about the nature of meaning based on your experiences teaching English to refugees. Are there other experiences that inform your thinking here? 

RR: Everything, really. I talk about my son a bit in the book, so I’ll return to him. He studied French in middle school and high school and got straight As, but when he graduated he felt like he couldn’t speak the language at all. When I floated the idea of going to Montreal for a father-son getaway he balked because he felt like his inability to communicate in French would be a painful reminder, like he’d failed in some way. I told him what I’d been telling him the whole six years he’d studied French: The way he was feeling was a result of the methods his teachers used. It had nothing to do with him.

At the beginning of each semester his teachers would say they were going to speak to the class exclusively in French, that they were going to immerse the students in the language. Even when executed well, this is a half-baked idea. The metaphor of immersion, in this context, is an allusion to water, to throwing someone into a pool, and if you’re going to throw someone into a pool you better teach them how to swim. That was the problem: His teachers didn’t teach him how to do anything in French.

Here’s another example: When my son was learning algebra I relearned it so I could help him if I needed to. I studied the quadratic equation and memorized the formula for solving it, but I never learned to use it. If all the word problems calling for its application hadn’t been lumped together in one chapter of the textbook, I would’ve been at sea.

What constitutes knowledge in a language is no different than what constitutes knowledge in math, or cooking, or doing the laundry, or driving a car. I have to be able to do something—sometimes, depending on the activity, to the point of automaticity.

When I say I’m fluent in a language I mean I know how to use words for the activities I engage in. If I engage in some new activity requiring me to learn a new set of words I don’t then say to myself I thought I was fluent but I was wrong; thank God I’ve learned to use these new words, because now I’m fluent!

Q: This reminds me of the example you give about operating a fruit-canning machine in Mogadishu.

RR: Right. The import here is that I don’t have the words for doing this in any language. I’m fluent in English, but if you told me how to do this in English I still wouldn’t understand, because I’ve never used these words in this way. If you taught me how to do this in Af Maaxa, I would be able to think it only in Af Maaxa.

Q: Speaking of thought, you have this section called “Speech, Thought, Memory.” Do you think of this as a developmental progression?

RR: Yes. And it echoes an earlier section called “Listen, Speak, Read, Write.” Each behavior is predicated on the prior one.

When my son was a baby I’d put him in this little seat—I think it’s called a bouncer—and he’d watch me cook. I’d be talking to him the whole time, narrating everything I was doing. Of course certain rituals developed right away. One was for making oatmeal. I’d go through this whole production with him, talking through the steps, matching words with gestures, building to the climax, the moment I turned off the burner, but the oatmeal was still too hot to eat, and I’d say Well, you’ve got to heat it up, then cool it down! I’d keep riffing on this refrain, and he loved it. He’d bounce up and down so much I thought he was going to rocket through the roof.

I think about this in terms of adult-language acquisition. A child typically begins using words somewhere between one and two years old. During this time her teeth are coming in and she’s gaining control of her mouth, learning how to vocalize with her lips and her tongue and her palate, and she’s listening and watching and waiting.

It’s so much harder for adults because they have to focus on survival. They don’t have the luxury of learning a language the way human beings actually learn a language. If I put someone in the adult equivalent of a baby bouncer—let’s say a hammock—and they just hung out there, not saying a word, and just watched me do things and talk about it, at the end of a year or two they’d be producing a ton of language. When the conditions of infancy and early childhood are reproduced in even the smallest ways—when adults are allowed to listen and watch and wait—they learn just as fast as children.

Q: You’ve talked a lot about your son here. It’s clear you adore him.

RR: Yes. He’s almost as tall as me and 10 times as strong, but all I want to do is cradle him in my arms.

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