Iraqi Aircraft Maintainers Learn English
By Senior Airman Chuck Broadway, 9 Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq / Air Component Coordination Element-Iraq
/ Published August 25, 2011
KIRKUK, AIR BASE, IRAQ -- For Iraqi aircraft maintainers at Kirkuk Regional Air Base, comprehension of the English language is a problem they face every day. All of their technical manuals are written in English, the internationally recognized language of aviation.
To combat this issue, Maj. Mark Gray, the 321st Air Expeditionary Advisory Group director of maintenance, along with several air advisors, teach Iraqi maintainers the basics of the English language in an interactive, open forum.
In June 2011, while touring an area of Kirkuk occupied by the Iraqi Air Force, Major Gray, along with an Iraqi general, came upon an abandoned building. When they entered the room the major was floored by what he saw.
The building, once operated by the Defense Language Institute, was previously used to teach English to the Iraqis. Filling shelves, top-to-bottom, were educational materials. Resembling a rainbow of hope were books, pictures and videos, many of which were still in the original wrappers.
The two officers came to an epiphany and asked each other, "Why don't we teach the English language here?"
The major quickly staked claim to the building and the program came to life.
Classes began in July Major Gray, a Wheatland, Calif. native deployed from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., teaching the alphabet, basic greetings, math problems and other vocabulary. Quickly though, he realized the Iraqis were further along than expected.
The classroom atmosphere is very laid back. There is a light-hearted mood between instructors and students which Major Gray said was his intent from the beginning.
"The classes we loved the most growing up are the ones that had the fun teacher," he said. "That's what I was hoping to show them. The students are not just learning the English language we're teaching them, but the way we interact with each other as well."
Eight Iraqis attended the first class. Since then, Major Gray said the class averages 35 students per session. Originally, sessions were two hours a day, four days a week. Now, due to growing attendance and popularity, night classes have added.
"It's really all about seizing the moment," Major Gray said. "The combination of timing and motivation seems to be a formula for success."
Master Sgt. Steven Kral, a 521st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron maintenance air advisor and one of the instructors, said he uses a method of constant repetition to engrain the knowledge in the students' minds.
An Iraqi student reads a single sentence. The instructor repeats that sentence and is joined by the rest of the class.
He compared his teaching method to any American learning a new language.
"The more we say and repeat something the more we remember it," said Sergeant Kral a Ventura, Calif. native also deployed from Eglin. "Eventually we're going to have the students write things down too. When you write something down you tend to remember it even better."
According to Major Gray, the instructors encourage every student to participate equally and facilitate group learning to cultivate an open and comfortable environment for the Iraqis.
"The instructors explain everything to us," said one Iraqi captain. "It's a very good way to learn and we can now gain the skills we need and get a higher level of English. Everyone will eventually be able to read and write in English and when we get better, the Iraqi Air Force gets better."
The Iraqis advanced quicker than any of the instructors expected. Though they still use a translator at times, English is now the primary language spoken during class.
Major Gray hopes the Iraqi officers who are fluent in English will take over the program and teach their fellow Iraqis.
"My hope is that the senior Iraqi leadership approves a formal English course at each location," he said. "This way each base has the opportunity to have a course. To teach the Iraqis something I know they need and want is an incredible opportunity."