Foreign Language To Go

February 04, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

One thing you can say about Rocio Gonzalez's Spanish class: It keeps rolling along.

It rolls through West Baltimore, through Odenton, through Bowie. . . .

The usually drowsy commuters boarding the No. 415 commuter train from Baltimore's Penn Station to Washington's Union Station got an eye-opener yesterday: Beginning Spanish en movimiento.

Underneath the "no smoking" sign in the last car, Miss Gonzalez invited her captive audience to learn and have a good time -- or at least as much fun as you can at 7:58 a.m. on a Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train.

"Buenos dias. Bienvenidos a la clase de Espanol," the 24-year-old instructor began as the train pulled away from the Penn Station platform. "If you can't hear me, it's 'Por favor, Senorita Gonzalez.' "

Armed with a writing pad on an easel, a marker and handouts, Miss Gonzalez had little trouble capturing the interest of the dozen or so commuters who signed up for the inaugural class.

No one -- if you'll pardon the expression -- was railroaded.

"I'm doing it just for fun," said Sue Glick, 25, a Johns Hopkins University graduate student headed for her job at the nonprofit Violence Policy Center in Washington. "I've been wanting to take Spanish for a long while."

The uninitiated might presume that learning a foreign language aboard a train hurtling along at 105 mph is a surreal experience. It is.

How many classes have a conductor coming down the aisle every few minutes to punch your ticket? How many classrooms lurch and clatter? How many lessons last an extra 20 minutes because of mechanical problems?

"I'd rather just see the train get in on time," said Megan Izykowski of South Baltimore, a commuter who chose not to participate.

The morning's only mishap took place at 8:23 a.m., shortly after Miss Gonzalez had the class conjugate the verb seguir (to follow). An abrupt stop at the station serving Baltimore-Washington International Airport caused the easel to -- ay! -- fall on the back of her head.

"Now I know not to stand there," she told the class without missing a beat. "It's OK. I don't have a concussion or anything."

At later stops, Miss Gonzalez grasped the easel firmly.

The Spanish class is sponsored by Linguex, an international language school with offices in Washington.

Mass Transit Administration officials in Baltimore said the school approached them last month to propose the language class, which they think is the first of its kind.

Spanish was chosen because it is the school's most popular offering, but Russian, French or German could be taught if there is enough demand, said Jocelyn E. Page, the company's program coordinator.

"The school is always looking for ways to bring language to people," Ms. Page said. "But this is our first lesson taught in a moving vehicle of any kind."

David V. Nogar, MARC's director, said the effort is reminiscent of the business classes offered in the 1970s and early 1980s on the Long Island Rail Road. What's more, he said, it doesn't cost MARC a thing -- Linguex charges students $2 per person per class.

"Anything that can be done to add value to the service that doesn't cost us, we're going to do," Mr. Nogar said. "It's definitely a plus."

Longtime MARC commuters Doris Allen and Clementine Watkins read parts in a brief Spanish scene, and the teacher praised their pronunciation of numbers -- "uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete."

"Muy bueno. Fantastico!"

Ms. Allen last attended Spanish class as a ninth-grader at Dunbar High School. That was in 1954, and her recollection is a bit hazy.

"I remembered 'buenos dias.' After that I was lost," said Ms. Allen, 53, a government budget analyst from West Baltimore. "But I thought it was really neat."

"It was much better than going asleep, reading a book or talking," said Ms. Watkins of Catonsville, a saleswoman at an electronics store. "Those are the three things I usually do."

Linguex officials said they will offer the class for several months and then decide whether to continue. They said they were pleased with the initial turnout. Nine students promised to be back today.

Miss Gonzalez said she, too, was happy with her first class.

The native of Colombia said she can envision herself a few years from now teaching Spanish at the front of a plane headed from Miami to Bogota.

"I'm very flexible," she said. "I like the idea of being innovative."

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