Bridging the cultural gap and enhancing international partnerships

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - -- Every year, the Air University at Maxwell opens its academic doors to more than 230 international officers from 73 countries.

While all of the IOs have a sound grasp of and working competence in the English language, many of their spouses and dependents arrive in Montgomery having little or no knowledge of English. This can make life extremely difficult when trying to integrate into the local community and fully immerse themselves into U.S. life and culture.

For those spouses and dependents seeking to improve their English language, the International Dependent's English Course is a vital program.

The opening ceremony Aug. 27 of the 2012 IDEC program welcomed 71 students.

IDEC history
IDEC started in 1958 and has since assisted thousands of spouses and dependents to learn and improve their knowledge of American English and learn about U.S. culture.

As the IDEC course director, Janet Beilstein of the International Officer School, explained, "The purpose of IDEC is to teach American English and U.S. culture to the dependents of our international officers. The course is a sixweek, multi-level program, designed to improve English communication skills, including listening, comprehension, vocabulary building, pronunciation, grammar, reading, writing and conversation, with a focus on U.S. culture and crosscultural sharing."

Having been involved in IDEC since 2003, Beilstein sees first-hand how effective the program is and how it plays a major role in how International Officer School provides support to international families.

"IDEC is an integral part of the IOS mission and has evolved over the years into a program that not only concentrates on the technical components of American English but also focuses on U.S. culture and history, giving participants the opportunity to become better acculturated to living in the U.S.," she said.

Student placement
Before starting the course, students are assessed with a verbal and written English test, which determines what level of group they will attend during the six-week program.

There are eight classes divided into three broad categories of beginner, intermediate and advanced, with classes stratified within each main group.

IDEC is held three times per week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, from Aug. 27 through Oct. 5. After the formal IDEC program ends, several IDEC groups will continue to meet on a weekly or monthly basis to enable students to continue to improve and practice theirEnglish.

Volunteers help
IDEC would not exist and could not function without the invaluable support of its volunteers, many of whom are current or former military spouses and several of whom have formal certification in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages or English as a Second Language, with another who is a regular certified teacher.

Many of the volunteers have been assisting in IDEC for several years now, with one volunteer, Peggy Funk, for the 24th year.

Funk speaks passionately about the impact the program has on the international dependents. She reflected on a situation last year when a student came up to her after the six weeks of IDEC training to express her gratitude for the program.

"During IOS' International Family Orientation Program, this student could not speak any English at all," Funk explained. "Six weeks later, she came up to me with a huge smile and said, 'I have been wanting to tell you how much I appreciate your help but I did not have the ability. Now, thanks to IDEC, I can communicate my extreme gratitude to you and finally say thank you for everything you do.'"

It is such examples, Funk said, that keeps her volunteering year after year, and she always tells this story when people ask what IDEC is about. It is not only an English course, but also involves learning about U.S. culture and history, cross-cultural sharing and building international partnerships to build confidence, trust and continued learning that students are able to use in their daily lives here in the U.S., as well as when they return to their countries.

Unique course
The International Officer School at Air University is the only international military education and support school in the U.S. to offer such an English program for the families of international military officers. With its unique mission, it is no wonder Col. Donald Shauber, the director of Air University International Affairs and commandant of IOS, is extremely proud of the program.

"Although IDEC provides the international spouses an opportunity to improve their English language skills, I believe the real benefit is how IDEC fosters an environment of cultural awareness and understanding between our international partners," he said.