Learning a new language from someone who speaks your own tongue "is like learning tennis without ever picking up a racket," said Steven Matthiesen, who teaches English for Speakers of Others Languages (ESOL) at Bladensburg High School.
Then, armed only with English and a smile, he entered a class of 12 students who speak five different languages.
He faced five Koreans, three Vietnamese, a Philippino, a Somali and a Cuban, all high school students. He quickly greeted them, told them of a vocabulary test scheduled for next week, then asked them to clear their desks for a vocabulary quiz -- all in English.
Hanging on his every word, gesture and smile they responded, even though they had been in class only three weeks. They were following along like the audience at a foreign film without subtitles.
The ESOL program guides some 1,100 students who speak 60 different languages through Prince George's County schools. It provides a two-hour daily class in conversational English. Other subjects are taught in regular classes with the American-born students.
Some of the kids have had training in English, as well as a normal school background, before they came to this country. Others have never been to school at all. Some speak obscure African and Asian dialects that have never been written down.
It doesn't matter to Matthiesen. He quickly collects the vocabulary quiz and hands out a list of paired words with similar but distinct sounds for a pronunciation drill.
"Repeat after me," he says:
"Bus-boss." They respond, "bus-boss".
"But-bought," he says. But he gets back something like "but-bot.
Next he repeats the words, sometimes saying the same word twice to see if they can hear the difference, and marks "D" for different or "S" for same on their papers.
Mattiesen said it is no surprise that kids seem to understand him.
"It's a truism in language that you always understand more than you're able to produce," he said during a short class break.
"I am a lucky person -- the luckiest teacher in the county," said Matthiesen, who is one of eight full-time and 10 part-time ESOL teachers. "I have motivated students who want to learn -- kids who depend on me," he said.
The majority of ESOL students are Asian-Pacific, said Lillian Falk, who coordinates the program for the county. The Asians tend to be very hard working and present no discipline problems, according to Matthiesen.
Back in class, Matthiesen is unabashed at slipping cultural cues into his grammar drills.
"You know class. Americans like to take baths. Some take a shower every day." He continues, "In some countries they only bathe once a week -- yes, it's true!" Matthiesen uses contractions whenever he can, since they are the rule of conversational English.
With the patience of a missionary, he explains the contraction "I'd with the idiom "I'd like", as the nice way to ask Dad for $5.
ESOL in Prince George's County began in 1967, when hundreds of foreign students began moving in from Washington's large international community. There is one ESOL teacher at each of 25 schools, and kids are bused from 28 other schools for the English class.
The alternative to ESOL is bilingual education, in which all of a student's classes are taught in his native language. Some nationality groups, primarily the Hispanic, have demanded bilingual education for their children. New guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education, requiring bilingual education, have drawn fire from county school officials.
They say it would be impossible to find enough trained teachers to cover the 60-odd languages spoken by the studnets. Moreever, a 1977 federal study of bilingual programs found they made no difference in the students' performances, according to coordinator Falk.
She feels the bilingual way may be useful where there is a large, unassimilated population of immigrants, but noted that most of the Asian groups in the county prefer the ESOL approach.
"The Asians have no other desire than to become a fiber in the weave of society," said Matthiesen.
He agreed that the high motivaton of his students is an important part of ESOL's success. A 1977 informal study of ESOL students found their grades equal to or slightly higher than those of their native-born counterparts.
Eleven grader Khanh Duy Pham's enthusiasm for ESOL bubbled through, despite his halting English.
"I've been here for three months. When I first came I didn't speak any English. Now I can speak a little English. I can read myself some story[s], and listen to American voice," he said.
"I don't have probelm in algebra, in chemistry. But I really have a problem about U.S. history because I never heard it before."
ESOL students have the most trouble with courses that require English proficiency, so these usually are scheduled for the later school years.
One wide-eyed young woman praised Matthiesen beyond her ability to speak English. She got an "A" in the course.
"Just study hard," she said.