Connor Phoennik said that as he was thinking about where to do an internship this past summer, he didn’t want to go to a country everyone else frequents. He wanted a more unique experience.
So he spent two months in the capital of Algeria, a destination none of his college classmates has ever been to before, teaching English and occasionally Spanish as a substitute to teens and young adults.
Valedictorian of the 2015 graduating class at South Fayette, Phoennik begins his senior year at McGill University in Montreal this fall. He entered college as a French major and thought living in a bilingual city would aid his studies. He eventually transitioned to a double major in linguistics and Arabic and knows seven languages.
Since childhood, Phoennik has always had a fascination with languages, instilled young with his grandparents’ retirement travels. He recalls flipping through photo albums fondly, or the foreign currency they’d bring home. He began learning Spanish in third grade, German in middle school and French in high school. Phoennik said his teachers at South Fayette all encouraged him, giving him an early start for his love of learning languages.
After applying for a competitive immersion program that would bolster his Arabic skills and not being accepted, Phoennik knew that he still wanted to study the language somehow. He got connected with AIESEC, an organization at his college’s campus that connects students with volunteer and internship opportunities.
Phoennik said he began learning Arabic because he wanted to try his hand at a non-European language with a different script. He admired the beauty of the calligraphy, how it decorated the sides of mosques.
“The alphabet is art,” Phoennik said.
As a foreign language intern, Phoennik had lots of flexibility and freedom to tailor his lessons to his students’ needs and interests. Teachers dealt with the more technical aspects of learning the language, and it was Phoennik and the other interns’ jobs to get students speaking. They would play games, perform plays, listen to music and debate various topics, activities to expand their vocabulary and improve their memory. He said his students were competitive, polite and engaged, motivated to learn English. He said many desired to learn because it was seen as an asset for professional life.
And many in Algeria are bilingual or trilingual, often switching between French and Arabic, as well as the native language if they were descendants.
“To function in society, everybody has to be bilingual,” Phoennik said, as the vocabulary draws from several sources.
The program kept him quite busy, working six days a week and about a total two-hour commute on top of a five-hour working day. But Phoennik could explore independently, seeing historical structures and traveling in his free time.
Phoennik was one of three paid interns in the program, along with about a dozen volunteers, but the only American citizen among the group.
AIESEC would arrange weekend trips for the group, and he recalled an outing to one of the country’s provinces, Tizi Ouzou. The area is mountainous and populated by the area’s indigenous people, Amazigh. The Amazigh are commonly referred to as Berbers and are indigenous to North Africa. Phoennik said more than half of the Algerian population descend from these people and are proud of their heritage.
The native language was also recently adopted as one of the country’s official languages. Phoennik said he didn’t know much about the Amazigh people before traveling to Algeria.
July 5 is Algeria’s Independence Day, a celebration of the country’s freedom from France in 1962. “Huge throngs of people” flocked to a monument that commemorates the occasion, he said, lit up in the flag’s colors: white, green and red.
The capital city is one of the most conservative areas, he said, while the countryside is less so. The capital district is purportedly known for theft targeting tourists and foreigners, but Phoennik said he felt very safe.
He said at times it was hard to reconcile his experience with what he anticipated. He faced no anti-American sentiments, and most people were eager to practice their English with him. Algeria doesn’t have the tourism industry that nearby Tunisia and Morocco have, partly because of the perception.
The warmth and hospitality were what resonated with him. Culturally, it’s an honor to host a guest, and people are “willing to bend over backwards to help anyone.” People Phoennik met just once wanted to see him again before he left for home to give him gifts, a move that warmed his heart.
He also noted that in Algeria and elsewhere internationally, people live within a plurality of languages and religions. Most people don’t grow up with just one religion and one language, as is common in America. There’s a lot that can be learned from people of differing backgrounds and religions coexisting peacefully elsewhere in the world, Phoennik said.
He recalled one evening coming home from a late night call to prayer. He saw an older man on public transportation who asked Phoennik about a stop. Once he knew Phoennik spoke English, this man was eager to practice. The man asked Phoennik if he had time for a tour, and the two explored the capital’s sights. He spent a few hours with this total stranger.
“He really represents most Algerians,” Phoennik said of the man.
As for his plans beyond his studies, Phoennik is considering graduate schools and possible career paths, like a translator or a government agency analyst. There is money in translation, as Arabic is a critical language in national security. But he is more inclined to teaching as a foreign language professor and has hopes to one day author his own textbook series after spending a summer working on one from two of his Arabic professors.