Learning English over a cup of coffee

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American couple run friendly little café in Ho Chi Minh City for Vietnamese to practice English with native speakers

Barbara Wyatt (3rd, L) and Jerry Wyatt (2nd, R) with Vietnamese guests at the English speaking club at their Master's Cup Coffee House

It is a weekend morning at the Master's Cup Coffee House in Ho Chi Minh City's District 7. Vietnamese and foreigners of various ages go in and out, laughing, chatting, drink and eating breakfast.

It could have been one of HCMC's million cafes except for the fact they are all speaking English, even the Vietnamese guests among themselves.

Barbara and Jerry Wyatt, the owners of the place, are both there.

In their 60s, the American couple greets and speaks with every customer, asking questions like they have known them all their life.

"We want to create a friendly environment to learn English, make people feel like this is a family, a place they can come and be themselves," Barbara says.

Duc, 25, a mechanical engineer who has come to the shop thrice, says: "For me, this is a place where people who love speaking English gather to help each other improve their speaking skills."

The idea of setting up Master's Cup as an "English speaking coffee shop" was Jerry's.

At 19 he "was sent" to Vietnam to fight in the War.

But since returning home after the Americans were defeated, Jerry always wanted to return to Vietnam one day to see how the country had changed.

After early retirement in 2000 he made his way back to Vietnam along with his wife and discovered they "like the country and can make some contribution."

They first worked for an English language center in HCMC where they had the chance to meet many youngsters "who were well educated in English grammar but did not have opportunities to access a real English-speaking environment or native English speakers to instruct."

"How to help improve their English speaking skills was a question for us."

The language center they worked for had an English speaking club, and this sparked in Jerry, who had worked for a long time for coffee chain Starbucks in the US, the idea of opening an "English speaking coffee club."

He says: "Vietnamese people like to go to the coffee shop, they like to socialize and talk. And what about a coffee shop where you can have a native English speaker to talk to?

"We were retired, we have free time."

Seven years after opening the café, he is still enthusiastic about the idea.

Barbara chimes in: "We saw young Vietnamese people's need to practice English. English is a great need to develop Vietnam, and we were born speaking English, so we wanted to help them."

In July 2006, with the help of some Vietnamese students they knew from the club, they opened the café and welcomed Vietnamese to practice speaking English with them and Mary Wisconsin, an American friend.

Changing lives

It has since not only become a popular place to improve one's English, but also one which sometimes changes lives.

The couple tells me a fascinating story about a young woman named Lien. A few years after they opened the cafe their daughter went to a manicure shop in the US and was served by a young Vietnamese woman who spoke excellent English. She asked her where she had learnt English, and the young woman, Lien, replied, "Master's Cup Coffee House in HCMC."

Lien was in university and had a part-time job at the manicure shop.

MASTER'S CUP COFFEE HOUSE

08 Nam Do Street, Phu My Hung Urban Area, District 7, HCMC

Du Dieu Ban, 31, a Japanese interpreter and a regular at the cafe for the last two years, says in fluent English that without Master's Cup he would never have been so good at the language.

"I was looking on the Internet for a place to learn English and found Master's Cup.

When I first came here all I could say in English were "˜Thank you' and "˜I'm fine, how are you?'

"I was shy and remained silent. I did not understand what people were saying.

"In the first year I came here five days a week. I spoke out, let people help me, and whenever I made a mistake, wrote it down in my notebook.

"The first thing we have to think about when learning English is to speak with foreigners. It is the best way to learn. I went to some other English clubs earlier and they did not have foreigners, only Vietnamese.

"And when a Vietnamese talks to a Vietnamese in English, they understand each other 100 percent but when you talk with a foreigner, it's different. Your pronunciation and intonation make it hard for them to understand what you say, so you have to find ways to make them understand, and you improve."

Cuong, one of his friends, became an English teacher at the Vietnam USA Society English Training Service Center (VUS) after visiting Master's Cup for a few years.

Growing bigger

Jerry and Barbara have friends of various ages, all English speakers, who are willing to give of their time to speak with the café's guests.

Jerry says with a happy smile: "I never would have dreamed of the place as it is today. I was just looking for some Vietnamese to come and talk to me, but then it has become a real joy.

"We knew Mai, our general manager, through one of our customers. When she first came to work for us, she understood nothing we said and it was hard for us to understand each other.

"But now everybody can see how well she speaks English and manages things with the foreign volunteers."

There are seven volunteers besides some others who come to work seasonally.

The café is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and there is always at least one native speaker available in each of the two "speaking" rooms. They pick a topic for discussion in English and make sure everybody in the room sticks to it. Guests can ask them questions about pronunciation and grammar.

Barbara says: "Master's Cup geared more for college and high school students, young professionals but we also have, middle-aged people, businessmen and women. We have people from many backgrounds, careers, and levels coming here, gathering together, just like all walks of life.

Linh, a waitress at the cafe, says: "I think those who want to sit and talk in the speaking rooms should be at the intermediate level."

She and Dung, the other waitress, first came to the shop as customers and could not understand anything people said.

She describes that experience as "It felt like a lot of bees flying around me."

It was very hard for them to communicate with Jerry and Barbara in the beginning, but now they speak to them in English.

Barbara says: "We do not only help young Vietnamese but young Americans too. When students from the US come to Vietnamese universities on exchanges programs, they come here and talk to Vietnamese."

People come to the café not just to practice English but also for cultural exchanges, to learn new things about other countries, and tell foreigners about Vietnam, she says.

Hannah, a young volunteer from the US, says her parents, who are friends of Jerry and Barbara, told her about the place.

She has just graduated from high school and has free time, and says she is lucky to work at Master's Cup, where she has made a lot of new friends and learned much about Vietnam.

Taking the idea to Myanmar

Master's Cup has inspired a friend of Jerry and Barbara's, who was looking for something to do in Myanmar, to set up a café in Yangon.

The couple are partners thought without a share of the profits, and the café uses the logo of Master's Cup Coffee House.

Seeing the enthusiasm of young Vietnamese to learn English and talk to native speakers, the two are now planning to open cafes in other major cities in Vietnam.

"People ask me how long we are going stay in Vietnam, and I tell them I will stay as long as my health allows me and until I have no more money left," Jerry says.

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