CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Twenty Soldiers and civilians from various units and organizations here visited a nearby Japanese junior high school Dec. 2. to participate in an event there known as “English Challenge Day.”
The event was meant to help eighth graders at Nishi Junior High learn about their own community by engaging with Camp Zama residents, and to further motivate them to study English by having them converse and interact with native English speakers, said Mutsuhiro Iida, an English teacher at Nishi.
The school co-hosted the event with the Zama City Board of Education, Iida said. The students rotated out for a full day with the guests, and the event was an official part of the class curriculum, making it the first of its kind at the school, he added.
The Soldiers and civilians were from the 35th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion’s 623rd Movement Control Team, the 38th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, Sergeant Audie Murphy Club, and the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program, among other organizations.
The students were divided into groups of four and rotated through eight booths, where the Camp Zama guests led them through a variety of role-playing activities meant to help them practice speaking English, Iida said. The students were challenged to do things like order food from a menu, talk about their favorite sites in the city, and give directions to a place.
One of the most positive outcomes from the event, Iida said, was seeing many of the students who sometimes struggle with their English tests get excited about the chance to communicate with the guests, and the enthusiasm they showed when they were successful at the activities.
After seeing the students’ reactions and hearing their feedback about the program, Iida said he would like to start planning future events on as often as a quarterly basis, if possible.
“I was very grateful to see the participants actively engage with the students to help them learn English,” Iida said. “I hope that by interacting with people from a different culture, language and background, the students are able to further enhance their communication skills.”
Second Lt. Sarina Baugher, assigned to the 623rd MCT, said she and her team had been looking for a volunteer opportunity like this for a while.
“I am grateful that we are able to be here today to actually have this interaction,” Baugher said. “This was exactly what we wanted.”
Baugher said her goal in volunteering was to help the students meet the requirements for the event and to encourage them to have face-to-face interactions with her and her fellow Soldiers while using and improving their English communication skills.
Once the Soldiers and students got past their initial nervousness and shyness around each other and got into the routine of the activities, Baugher said, both groups started interacting with each other more comfortably, regardless of the language barrier.
The lieutenant said she hopes the students will take what they learned with them, and that it will encourage them to further explore learning English, interacting with foreigners out on the street, and maybe even traveling to America one day.
“If we can show young Japanese students that we are here to help them and we want to interact with them and to have a community scene with everyone, it helps our presence in Japan,” Baugher said.
Baugher said the other Soldiers who participated also gained a beneficial experience. She said she hopes the cross-cultural event will likewise encourage them to further explore the Japanese community and its culture while they are stationed here.
Eighth grader Mizuki Ise said it was a great experience getting to have back-and-forth conversations with native English speakers as a supplement to their regular in-class lessons.
Ise said she has been to several open-base U.S. military events but had never had the opportunity to converse directly with Soldiers like at the English Challenge Day event. She said she was very nervous at first, but the Soldiers’ patient and friendly demeanors put her at ease and helped her communicate better.
“By spending time with the Soldiers today, it definitely helped change my perception of them from thinking they were intimidating to finding out they are actually very approachable,” Ise said.
Eighth grader Shota Hattori said he especially enjoyed showing the Soldiers his favorite places in Zama City. They assisted him with the words he was trying to say, which made him feel more comfortable and boosted his confidence in his abilities as the day progressed, he added.
“This was my first time to interact with Soldiers face-to-face,” Hattori said. “In talking to them, I realized that they are very generous and funny.”