Hang onto your bottom dollar. Esperanto has not exactly surged onto the world scene in its first 91 years, and may never. There are already 3,000 languages. Why a 3,001st?

Well, to promote peace, for openers. And international understanding. And better communication. And to spend less money on translators and translations.

Dreamers, these Esperanto folk. Indeed, the very name of their language translates as "One who hopes."

But their membership logs show numbers that aren't dreams. The movement for a nonpolitical, nonnationalistic worldwide language is gathering some oomph again - and nowhere more than right here in International City.

One Thursday night a month, about 20 well-dressed Washingtons crowd the community room of a police station on Idaho Avenue NW. There, the Esperanto Society of Washington may read poetry, view slide shows, hear speakers. Regardless, all proceedings are conducted in Esperanto.

Invented in Poland in 1887, Esperanto has been in use in the United States since 1907.

The language presents relatively little reading difficulty to anyone versed in a western language. Nearly 80 percent of its roots are Latin; only the endings or beginnings of words look unfamiliar. "Matematiko" is the Esperanto rendering of mathematician, for instance. "Kato" is cat. "Jes" is yes.

But speaking the language, or understanding it, is a bit trickier.

Esperantists contend that their pride and joy sounds closest to Italian, with teaspoons of Yiddish, Slavic and German thrown in. One novice found it more like Bathtub Spanish. Whatever, Esperanto is tough to "catch" without practice.

But not that tough to preach. Consider these words, very famous in any tongue.

En la komenco, Dio Kreis la cielon kaj la teron.

That is the first line of the Bible (In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth).In the Esperanto version, each word is pronounced exactly the way it would be if it were English, except for "kaj," which is pronounced like the Greek letter "chi."

"Thirty hours, and you can be functional with it," said John Dale, 31, a Washington editor and an Esperantist since college.

The problem, of course, is that many consider 30 hours an excessive investment, especially in the United States. Although there are 35,000 fluent Esparantists in 80 countries, only 800 are Americans, and only 70 are Washingtonians. Still, those numbers represent increases since two years ago.

Dr. E. James Lieberman, a Washington psychiatrist and former president of the worldwide Esperanto Society, thinks the problem has been the oh-so-American "sciences" of promotion and public relations.

"We've had some prosyletizers, but some who've been just the opposite," Liebernan said. "There were some people who would grab the bus driver by the lapels and say, 'You should learn Esperanto.' But a lot of the approach has backfired.

"Educators never get interested. They think it's a code or a game. And you always hear that only psychotics or children invent languages."

But there were more basic "marketing" problems. Since Esperanto was invented, much of the world has turned to English as a second language, so there has seemed to be little need for a third. And because of habit or national pride, many potential Esperantists do not want to budge beyond their mother tongues.

The scent of hope has been strongest at the United Nations. UNESCO's secretary general declared in 1966 that the concept of Esperanto, if not the language itself, coincided with UNESCO's aims.

Esperantists feel that the United Nations would be an ideal showcase for the effectiveness of their tongue. If adopted, it could save the United Nations nearly $1 million a year in translators' salaries and equipment, they argue.

But for now, as John Dale put it, "It's lonely because you feel, 'Who the heck out there cares?'

"Because national leaders do no support it, nothing happens. It's inertia and habit and skepticism. There's no valid, rational argument against it."

James Lieberman feels that Esperanto's failure to take hold is more the result of people being put off by the work it requires. The problem is so familiar that Esperanto has an idiom for such people: "eternal komencatoj" (perpetual beginners).

The greatest interest in Esperanto came just before each of the two World Wars. Wartime tensions nearly killed the movement both times, and in the United States, the McCarthyism of the 1950s factionalized it. Even 25 years later, Lieberman said, friends of his are surprised to learn that the language and its backers still exist.

But they do, on both extremes of the age spectrum. In Washington, the "bookends" are Lewis H. Maury, 88, and David Shaw, 17. Both said Esperanto adds to their lives as nothing else could.

"It's been a dream, and more intellectual stimulation than I've gotten anywhere else," said Maury, a high school dropout who sells real estate. "I've used it to correspond all over the world."

"I've had opportunities to communicate with people who might not know English," said Shaw, a junior at Herndon High School who lives in Reston and who picked up Esperanto from a book in the Fairfax County Public Library. "It's opened up a few million more people to me, and that's very useful."

Are Esperantists kidding themselves? Only, says James Lieberman, if they lose sight of their goals.

"The idea is not to intrude on other people's mother tongues. The idea is to preserve languages, but to have an agreed-upon second language.

"It's a hobby, a serious hobby. It's a cause."