Civil Affairs Soldiers hold first-ever ‘Language Lab’ in Balbala

U.S. Army Spc. Claudia Brodeur, a civil affairs specialist, 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, works with students during the first-ever English Discussion Group (EDG), in the neighborhood of Balbala, Djibouti, Nov. 29, 2018.  The EDG serves as a "language laboratory" in which students develop practical linguistic and rhetorical skills through relationship building and information exchange. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Shawn Nickel) Civil Affairs Soldiers hold first-ever ‘Language Lab’ in Balbala U.S. Army Spc. Claudia Brodeur, a civil affairs specialist, 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, works with students during the first-ever English Discussion Group (EDG), in the neighborhood of Balbala, Djibouti, Nov. 29, 2018. The EDG serves as a "language laboratory" in which students develop practical linguistic and rhetorical skills through relationship building and information exchange. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Shawn Nickel)

CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti – Foreign languages provide a competitive edge in career choices; their study enhances listening skills and memory, and can improve the understanding of one’s own language. These were just some of the lessons shared by Soldiers and Djiboutians during the first English Discussion Group November 29, in the neighborhood of Balbala, Djibouti. 

More than 40 Djiboutian students attended the "language laboratory" where students develop practical linguistic and rhetorical skills through relationship building and information exchange.

“This is a great opportunity to build new relationships with our host-nation citizens and make a good first impression in a part of the city where we previously were unable to reach,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jerry Quintero, the operations non-commissioned-officer in charge, 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion. “For many, this is the first time they have met an American, especially an American service member.”

Civil Affairs holds weekly EDGs across the country; however, it took three years of hard work to open the doors of the lab in the Balbala neighborhood, a Djibouti suburb with a population of over 80,000. 

Quintero said the breakthrough is extremely exciting and will bring more opportunities for the two communities to learn and grow together.

“There have been a lot of challenges, but working with the embassy and keeping at it has finally paid off,” said Quintero. “Now we can keep this up weekly and really make an impression and learn from our partners.”

Although the program has been a challenge to kick start, he said the reward for the extensive work is worth the return.

“Every time I meet a Djiboutian and have these opportunities, I am amazed by the kindness and enthusiasm we are met with,” said Quintero. “The language skills and knowledge these people bring to the discussions is always impressive.”

The topic of the discussion was “Does money buy happiness?” The debate swayed both ways; however, the consensus was that without learning English, money is a lot harder to earn.

“Money does not buy happiness, but it does help,” said Nassir Ibrahim, 19, a Djiboutian student. “English is the primary language around the world; if you know it, you can go almost anywhere. It’s very rewarding to have the Soldiers come help us and provide proper conversation. It makes improving our skills faster.”

Ilias Hachi, a local who works on Camp Lemonnier and lives in Balbala, said he had a very difficult time learning English. It was the encouragement of his mother and the help of an embassy employee, who helped him overcome the hurdle.

“Having a class would have been very beneficial,” Hachi said. “I would have had a group to speak with and different people to gain experience from.”

Serving under the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, the battalion’s mission is spread across the combined joint operations area, ranging from veterinarian and medical assistance training to security training, in countries like Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, to English discussion groups here in Djibouti -- all while working with leaders to foster a safe, stable, and secure Africa. 

“There's an African proverb that says, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Kim, commander of the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, an Army Reserve unit from Mattydale, New York. “We are in this together and I’m proud of the role my Soldiers have in helping people become more competitive in the job market, while also learning about Djiboutian language and culture.”

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