"Can you take two queen-size sheets to room 500?" the teacher asked the hotel worker. "Yes," replied the worker, one of several foreign-born employes of Rockville's Crowne Plaza Hotel attending special classes at the hotel to improve English skills.
But another student, Chau Ha, knew better. "There is no room 500 in this hotel," she said.
"Okay, room 501," the teacher said.
"There is a king-size bed in that room," Ha said.
Teacher Dawn Kepets-Hull described Ha's responses as "perfect. I could tell she understood everything I said."
That was not always the case for 30-year-old Ha, a housekeeper who left her native Vietnam in 1980 and arrived in this country in 1982. She spoke "very little, broken English" and was "impossible to understand" when she first came to the hotel 15 months ago, said housekeeping director Don Luther.
Luther said Ha now asks for cleaning supplies by name -- instead of leading him to her cleaning cart and pointing to an empty bottle of cleaning fluid as she once did.
The language course, a pilot program funded by the state, is based on situations at the hotel, said Kepets-Hull.
Students act out the roles of employes and guests, supervisors or other employes, to improve their language skills. In one skit, two employes meet in a hallway:
"Hey, watch out! You ran over my foot with your cart."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention. Are you okay?"
"Well, it hurts, but it's okay. It was an accident."
"I will be more careful from now on."
When the 315-room Crowne Plaza, a Holiday Inn franchise, opened last year, 20 percent to 25 percent of the 400 employes -- primarily housekeeping and kitchen staff members who earn about $4 an hour -- were not proficient in English, said Robert Carsey, assistant to the general manager. Carsey said communication between management and these staff members was difficult at best.
The hotel was the first employer to participate in a newly established program of English classes for adult refugees conducted by the Montgomery County school system.
Maryland in a recent 12-month period had the 10th highest influx of refugees in the country. And about two-thirds of the 1,400 immigrants who settled in the state during the 12 months that ended in September came to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said Frank Bien, coordinator of the state's office of refugee affairs.
About 80 percent of the recent refugees in the two counties are from Southeast Asia, and many have had little education in their homelands, Bien said.
Emigres from Asia prior to 1980, in contrast, tended to be educated, English-speaking professionals who were attracted to this area because of its proximity to the nation's capital, he said. Many had friends in the military and government.
The more recent emigres generally are taking relatively unskilled jobs, for which proficiency in English has not been a requirement, Bien said.
The first round of classes -- paid for by the state with a $43,000 grant -- is being conducted for employes of five companies in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Crowne Plaza has taken over the cost of paying for its subsequent courses, said Bette Daudu, coordinator of Montgomery County's refugee language program.
Crown Plaza's first class for 15 employes was conducted last spring, and a second class with 12 students is under way. A third class is scheduled to start in January.
Daudu said employes of the Gaithersburg Marriott Hotel recently began studies, and Pressure Sciences Inc., a Hyattsville rocket seal manufacturer, had classes for its assembly workers.
Luther, of Crowne Plaza's housekeeping department, said the students "could be management potential if they could speak English well, because they have a good attitude and dedication for their work."
Carsey said that as a result of the classes there is less turnover on his staff and that "the employes are happier, they are staying and are part of a unit, instead of just an individual trying to survive."