Q&A with French teacher Koussaila Boumeridja

Mr. Boumeridja, a French teacher at Riverside High School, came to the Unites States 10 years ago. He talked with The Pirates Hook about the language struggles he experienced in school and when he came to the US as well as the language barriers he sees his own students navigating.

Mr. Boumeridja working during his planning period. Photo by: Donna Diaz

The Pirates Hook (PH): Did you grow up with a language barrier?

Koussaila Boumeridja (KB): I would say yes, because I am native Berber. I am from Algeria, and in Algeria, the school system works in Arabic. I never learned any Arabic until I started first grade. So when I went to school…everything was new. I started school with a foreign language.

PH: Was it hard coming to America?

KB: It wasn’t hard because I study foreign languages. I came 10 years ago. But it was hard speaking because the American accent is totally different from where I studied. In my country, we do a lot of British English. So when I came here, I was struggling a little bit with understanding but not with adapting myself to the American culture.

Mr. Boumeridja with a friend in Exposition Senior High School in 2004. Mr. Boumeridia grew up in Massinissa, Algeria. Photo courtesy of Koussaila Boumeridia

PH: When you were in school, and when you came here, did you ever feel like an outcast or you didn’t fit in right away?

KB: I was afraid to speak in English, even though I was teaching English phonetics in Algeria. So I was teaching speaking, basically in Algeria, but like I told you with the British English. So it was a little bit hard at the beginning when I got here.  

PH: How did you overcome being afraid of speaking English? 

KB: By speaking. I was working and trying to speak and I felt very welcome here. I was working at Sears back then.The first week my manager knew that I came from Algeria. He was talking to me asking me things and all that. I remember the first thing I talked with him about [was my] schedule. I didn’t know that was called ‘schedule’ in American English, So I said, ‘Where the ‘schdue?’’ And he was telling me, ‘what is that?’ So I told him the time when I’m gonna come to work next week and all that and he told me it was  “SCHEDULE”. 

PH: Do you see yourself in the students with language barriers that don’t know English well?

KB: Yeah, of course, I see that a lot. Especially here at Riverside, I see it a lot with Arabic speakers. It’s not just speaking for them. Also, writing is very hard, especially when they first come here. Arabic is written from the right to the left. So basically, when everything was in Arabic in their country writing in English is kind of like drawing. 

Mr. Boumeridja with family at a Gala in 2003, Algeria. Photo courtesy of Koussaila Boumeridja

PH: Should there be more bilingual staff at Riverside?  

KB: Yeah, of course, especially bilingual counselors. Then come administrators and teachers, of course, but counselors because they basically work with the future of the kid [when they choose the] right classes .I feel like it’s very important for school staff to know at least one extra language. We have a large community of Spanish speakers, but any extra language will be helpful.

PH: If there was one thing you would want people to know about students dealing with language barriers, what would it be?

KB: So, I would say that these people are very smart. And most of them know two or three languages but they don’t know any English. Like my wife, when we came here, she majored in Arabic in Algeria. She spoke four languages, but no English, zero English, because in Algeria, English is like the fifth or the sixth language. So these kids are very smart, some of them speak two or three languages other than English.

PH: How could students help with non English speaking people to make them more comfortable in Riverside?

KB: For students, I feel first thing is not laughing at them. That makes them very uncomfortable. Also, try to welcome them and be their friends and try to understand them. Like for example, if someone tries to tell you ‘Where is the office?’ or ‘Where room 130?’ do not say, ‘I don’t understand.’ Try to understand them. If you can’t, get them to a person who can help. I think that’s especially [valuable] outside, like where kids can make friends and talk. And then in the classroom, if you have any ESL kids in your classroom, try to help them understand the work. They can do math, but they don’t know what to do when the teacher gives them an assignment. They don’t know what the question is saying to do. So try to help them with that. I’m pretty sure they can do that work with smart kids.

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