LANGUAGE DIVIDES, AND UNITES As immigration to U.S. soars, so does demand for English


A photo caption in The Sun Monday incorrectly identified a child in an English class at Parkville High School. Her name is Subhashini Katumuluwa. Also, a history teacher from Sri Lanka, Sandathie Kulatilaka, was misidentified in the accompanying article.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

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.

L "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, a group whose members' very names defy the familiarity of the setting: 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 only by their desire to master English, which looms before them like a mountain peak, massive and unforgiving, bristling 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 in 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 such as 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 City (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 at 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 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.

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."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad