Ask Pun Hing Wong, 42, a quiet, serious man in thick black-framed glasses and a Schlitz beer T-shirt who sits near the back. After 13 years in the United States, his goal is modest: to improve his English to the point he can trade his cook's job in a Chinese restaurant in Bel Air for a waiter's job.
"Cooking too hot," Mr. Wong says. "Waiter, talk to American people."
He came from Hong Kong in 1979, stopped in at a Greenmount Avenue Chinese restaurant and stayed. Since then, at several restaurants, he has kept to something like his current work schedule: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week. He and his wife, a waitress, own a car and a house. He has been a U.S. citizen for several years.
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But Mr. Wong has to dig a business card out of his wallet to make an interviewer understand the name of the restaurant where he works. "People say, 'Chinese, stupid -- in America, don't speak English,' " he says. "Feel bad, bad." Bad enough that he now spends his only evening off in Ms. Plehn's class.
For Sia Phoukieo, this is really English as a fourth language. Her first language is Hmong, her second is Lao and her third is Thai, which she perfected in a squalid refugee camp before coming to Baltimore in 1980.
She can express herself without great difficulty, but she still tells with humor of buying vinegar when she wanted apple juice, and with pain of a misunderstanding between her brother and his employer that ended with his dismissal despite her attempt to translate.
Still, however imperfectly, she keeps interpreting for friends and relatives. "It's like helping the blind to see," she says.
Immigration, this class makes clear, is not an act but a process, onethat only begins as a person steps off an airplane or onto a dock. For some people it never ends. Calliope Prodromou came to Baltimore from Athens, Greece, in 1959 and picked up her serviceable conversational English on her job as a hairdresser. But she never learned to read or write English.
"Now I'm a grandmom, and I'm starting school," she said. What persuaded her to attend, she said, was her desire to read stories to her two grandsons, ages 6 years and 11 months.
On the other end of the time scale are people like Severina Buendia, a dark-haired, middle-aged woman who came to Baltimore with her brother last November. In Peru she did clothing alterations. Here, with no driver's license and rudimentary English, she hopes to find baby-sitting work.
"You help me?" she asks with a forlorn smile.
Ms. Plehn, a motherly woman in her 50s with short gray hair, tries to turn the class into a friendly oasis, lavishing praise, leading trips to the public library and directing cacophonous rounds of "There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe." She teaches English to immigrant children in Perry Hall in the afternoons, and occasionally she has taught three generations of the same family simultaneously. To all of them she offers, in her slight Dutch accent, her own example as an immigrant who herself came to this country 16 years ago.
"I knew English when I came, but the cultural transition still wasn't easy for me," she says, as the last students file from the classroom. "I try to put them at ease, to build some rapport with them. I understand what they're going through."