By Ryo Isobe, FLEACT Yokosuka Public Affairs
YOKOSUKA, Japan – Ship Repair Facility and Japan Regional Maintenance Center (SRF-JRMC) Language Training Division hosts a weekly “English Conversation Club” where native English-speaking instructors, Sailors and Yokosuka Naval base employees voluntarily support and encourage SRF-JRMC Japanese employees to master the English language.
The English Conversation Club brings Japanese Master Labor Contract (MLC) employees and American volunteers together to practice conversational, daily English. In November 2015, Division Instructors and Volunteer Coordinators Estell Darby and Ines Martinez were asked by their supervisor to pursue a new idea.
“My supervisor toured SRF-JRMC’s shops to gather data regarding the Japanese employees’ needs,” said Darby. “We found that students expressed a desire for more time dedicated to improving their speaking and listening skills.”
“Even though I receive language training almost every day,” said apprentice trainee and welder, Shouta Tashiro. “I want to have as many occasions as possible to speak with a lot of English native speakers.”
The goal was to help Japanese employees learn to use English in the performance of their duties. They began engaging native English speakers on base and signing up volunteers, which led to the creation of the weekly conversation club. These chats help the command’s MLC employees develop communication skills needed to communicate clearly with their American co-workers.
Darby’s supervisor and the language training division head, Paul Mason, shared another advantage of the club.
“Participants gain additional opportunities to engage in face-to-face conversation with native English speakers,” Mason said. “The club allows them more focused speaking practice with ‘real’ Americans than they would get in classroom lessons while still providing a learning environment where students can feel safe making mistakes and experimenting with the language.”
“I’m happy to have many chances to talk with various English speakers here,” said frequent club participant and shipfitter, Tomohiko Ando.
Another apprentice trainee and welder, Tsubasa Kosuge said, “It is still very difficult for me to speak English. Sometimes, I have no idea how to start a conversation, nor do I have enough comprehension skills in listening. Yet, I know that getting better at English in time would also help me pass the American Language Course Placement Test (ALCPT) for promotion.”
The command’s language training division conducts daily English training for Japanese employees to improve communication and also administers the ALCPT. The ALCPT is a Department of Defense test developed by the Defense Language Institute English Language Center to measure individual English proficiency for jobs, training and class placement.
Typically, between eight and 15 individuals show up for club meetings every week. Exchanges among the speakers are guided by “language functions,” which are used in situations such as asking directions, getting more details or making polite requests. Each week, different functions are chosen as the objective, and conversations include the use of expressions needed to practice that function.
“I think this works well for the Japanese here who would like to learn English, because we [native-English speakers] can speak the language outside of textbooks,” said Ines Martinez. “The English classes we usually hold are based on a curriculum, and teachers can’t focus on speaking with one student all the time and still teach the curriculum. The conversation club gives students the chance to have those real one-on-one conversations outside of the classroom.”
Volunteers, however, are not limited to command personnel, but they also extend to personnel base-wide.
“I saw a flyer at Starbucks recruiting volunteers,” said a frequent volunteer, Renea Whitmore, from Naval Supply Systems Command, Fleet Logistics Center Yokosuka. “It is exciting and rewarding to be able to support these eager students. I try to listen to them carefully, develop and aid the conversation to flow – or fly – smoothly without making students uncomfortable or intimidated. That often needs a sense of humor.”
On witnessing the turnouts of club meetings, Darby said: “Students who have attended regularly are gaining greater confidence and skills when speaking with their American colleagues. Since it helps our SRF-JRMC Japanese employees, we would like to see more native English-speaking volunteers, so we can offer a longer time for conversations to more students who are interested in learning and improving their English skills.
Anyone who is interested in the English Conversation Club is welcome to join. Weekly meetings are held on Wednesday evenings from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the SRF-JRMC Headquarters (building 2046, room 206), on King Street to the left of the Fleet Theater.