Overcoming the awesome language barrier Increase in immigration fills classrooms with students seeking to master English.

May 11, 1992|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

Diosebethh Hossein faces the class nervously, shifting from foot to foot. Pink bow atop her abundant red hair, this middle-aged woman is momentarily transformed into a schoolgirl.

"I. Am. From. Venezuela!" Ms. Hossein begins, sounding as if she has practiced for days, which she has. Then she holds up a chicken and an elephant, glued together from shells. Muttering in Spanish, she pulls herself together and pushes ahead.

"Children," she says. Fourteen people from nine countries are watching her.

"Children," her teacher, Truus Plehn, repeats encouragingly.

"No . . . no . . . no money," Ms. Hossein goes on. "No money."

"The children have no money. They're poor," Ms. Plehn says.

Long pause, more muttering. Ms. Hossein looks for the word on the ceiling tiles but doesn't see it there. She looks down at the chicken and the elephant, who offer no hint. She clenches her fists.

"Sell!" she says suddenly, almost shouting. "Sell! Sell tourists! Sell tourists!" Ms. Hossein raises her arms in triumph and does a brief samba, like the winner of a game show.

"Poor children gather the shells, make these animals and sell them to the tourists?" Ms. Plehn interprets. Ms. Hossein nods vigorously. Teacher and student embrace. The room explodes in applause.

Mondays and Wednesdays for the last three months, Ms. Plehn's class in English-as-a-second-language has gathered in this suburban mathematics classroom, adorned with posters of polyhedrons and quadrilaterals. Some with children in tow, the students troop at sunset down the third-floor corridor of Parkville High School, past Junior Prom promotions and yearbook recruiting ads, to Room 302.

It is a diverse group that applauds Ms. Hossein's performance: Kalinawansa Dhammasiri Kulatilaka, a 67-year-old retired school principal from Sri Lanka, and his wife, Anuradhapura, a retired history teacher; Sia Phoukieo, 43, a hospital housekeeper from Laos; Namhee Lee, 27, a Korean woman who works at a Lombard Street carryout; Oliver Jude ("O.J.") Yu, 18, from the Philippines, now a deliveryman for a plant nursery.

There is a neuroscientist from Beijing and a cook from Hong Kong, a Peruvian woman desperate for work as a baby-sitter and a Honduran woman who represented her country until recently at the United Nations. One student has been in the United States 33 years. Another has been here barely 33 weeks.

They are united by their desire to master English, which looms before them like a mountain peak, with false summits and slippery slopes. They have in common vocabulary gaps big enough to swallow a job interview whole, anxiety about when to put an "s" on the end of a verb, definite trouble with indefinite articles. They have in common accents that mark them as coming from someplace else.

In this, they have plenty of company. During the 1970s and 1980s, 11.8 million people immigrated legally to the United States, mainly from Asia, Central America and the Soviet Union, the largest wave of immigrants since the enormous influx from Europe the first two decades of this century. More immigrants came in 1990 -- 1.5 million -- than ever before in a single year in U.S. history, according to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.

As a consequence, the number of adults in English-as-a-second-language classes like Ms. Plehn's tripled nationally from 396,000 in 1980 to 1.25 million in 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While immigrant populations remain concentrated in many cities, many new Marylanders are settling in the Washington and Baltimore suburbs, and the 1990 census found slightly more non-speakers of English in Baltimore County (16,158) than in Baltimore (15,616). The federally funded adult ESL classes offered in Baltimore County schools draw about 1,000 students a year, double the number of just three years ago, and only extensive use of volunteers helps keep class sizes manageable, adult education officials say.

The numbers reflect both anguish as well as ambition.

"There's a great sense of frustration for those who don't speak English," said Ron Schwartz, 54, who has taught English for 30 years in seven countries and who now trains English-as-a-second-language teachers at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "They find themselves talking like a little child. They lose their sense of self-worth. People who were professionals in their own country have to take their 7-year-old to the bank to translate."

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 VTC 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.

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