Brendan Fabeny, 14, looks intently at his book through black-rimmed glasses and repeats: "Taim sa seomra bia." I am in the dining room. "Ta tu sa seomra bia. Ta se sa seomra bia." You are in the dining room. He is in the dining room.
For one hour twice a week, a classroom at Alexandria's Bishop Ireton High School is filled with the staccato lilt of language drills in Gaelic. In the classroom next door, students learn Chinese. On other days, in other rooms, they study Brazilian Portuguese and Italian.
These classes are just one sign of a resurgence of foreign language study in the Washington area -- a movement that has swelled high school enrollments in Spanish, French, German and Latin as well as less commonly taught tongues.
Educators say the surge has been prompted by recent curriculum reforms as well as a growing awareness that knowledge of a second language is an important survival skill.
In Virginia, Department of Education officials report that 42 percent of all secondary students are studying a foreign language this year -- the highest foreign language enrollment since World War II. Alexandria school officials report that Latin enrollment has nearly doubled, from 86 students to 160, in the last five years.
One Montgomery County high school, Walt Whitman, added Italian to its curriculum this year; several others offer Chinese, Japanese or Russian.
Next fall, Prince George's County will launch language immersion programs in two magnet elementary schools, where kindergartners will hear and speak nothing but French. The following year, as first graders, they will learn to read in French; English gradually will be added to their curriculum until the students are completely bilingual.
"We started out two years ago calling it a fragile revival [of foreign language teaching]," said David Edwards, executive director of the Washington-based Joint National Committee for Languages. "I don't think it's fragile any more."
A 1982 survey by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages showed that 19 percent of secondary students were studying a foreign language. "I think our next survey will show a jump," said Ed Scebold, executive director of the group. "I really expect to see a 5 to 6 percent rate of growth."
Recent reforms in both secondary school and college curriculums placing greater emphasis on languages account for part of the boost in enrollment. The District of Columbia Board of Education imposed a one-year foreign language requirement for high school graduation beginning with the class of 1984. In Virginia and Maryland, special advanced high school diplomas require several years of language study.
Language teachers and experts say the increase also is fueled by demographic changes that have brought more native speakers of other languages to the Washington area, as well as students' awareness that mastery of a second language is a basic tool of many occupations.
In the increasingly diverse Washington metropolitan area, students and teachers say it is becoming difficult to remain oblivious to other languages and cultures.
"In this area, practically any of the kids who have part-time jobs are going to run into Spanish speakers," said Marilyn Barrueta, a Spanish teacher at Arlington's Yorktown High School.
"It's a much more real-life situation here in the Washington area because it's an international community," said Dorothy Huss, specialist in foreign language learning for the Maryland Department of Education. "Kids can see the application much more readily."
In Barrueta's classroom, filled with colorful travel posters and several hanging pin atas, students repeat dialogues along with a tape recorder. Barrueta explained the difference between, "Hace tres an os que estudio Espan ol" (I have been studying Spanish for three years) and "Estudie Espan ol hace tres an os" (I studied Spanish three years ago).
Her students say they find immediate practical uses for such exercises. Eric Falck, 18, has a part-time job at a fabric store near the school: "A lot of Spanish people come in, and I help them out a little bit."
"I worked [in a clothing store] up at Seven Corners," said Scott Palmer, 17. "I used [Spanish] a lot more than I thought I would."
The Washington area, with its embassies, diplomatic corps and focus on international events, also reminds students of the long-term reasons to study language, educators say.
On Barrueta's classroom door is a sign that reads, "Employment sources for students with language proficiency." The poster lists the federal government, hotels, banks, export-import companies, chambers of commerce and public schools as likely options.
"It continually comes home to the American people that we are no longer necessarily the top dog -- that there are other people out there who speak other languages," said Dora Kennedy, a supervisor of foreign languages for Prince George's County schools. "People are beginning to realize that foreign languages are very much related to many careers."
Experts say the focus on languages is in some ways a swing back to the educational menu of the 1960s, before many universities and colleges dropped language requirements amid students' demands for "relevant" courses.
If education reform has prompted a return to basics, they say, there is nothing more basic than the language study that was once a part of every classical education.
"If you really want to go back to basics, you're talking about Latin," Kennedy said.
In Alexandria, where Latin enrollment has nearly doubled since 1980, seven students this year reached a level of study high enough to take the advanced placement exam in Latin for the first time in years, teacher Cathy Caudell said.
Caudell, called "Doc" by her students at T.C. Williams High School, stood under a row of posters depicting Roman gods and goddesses one recent morning as she helped students correct a quiz.
"Number five, regale, is an adjective," she said. "It's nominative, accusative, singular and neuter."
The language is difficult, said several students, but learning Latin helps unlock the grammatical mysteries of English and other Romance languages.
"I used to go to private school, and I took Latin there once," said Jonathan Keiser, 18. "I failed it, but I did enjoy it -- the parts I didn't fail. I've learned more about English in this class than in four years of English grammar."
"I cruised through the first two years of Spanish because of Latin," said Mary Alice McMorrow, who took two years of Latin before beginning Spanish at Yorktown High School.
David Copenhafer, a 16-year-old sophomore at T.C. Williams, said he began Latin after studying one year of French because, "I was looking for something a little classical, in terms of a classical education. I had some friends who were taking it . . . . I also had some ideas that maybe it would help me with myvocabulary, my SATs."
Students learning some less common languages said they were prompted to take the classes not because everyone was doing so, but precisely because few others were.
"Everyone in high school speaks German or French or Italian," said senior Matt Zolly, 17, a student in Bishop Ireton's Gaelic class. "This seemed like something different."