Vietnamese instructor Kim Chi Crittenden asks the class, "How old are you?"
She listens carefully as a room full of Arlington teachers and area residents repeat the question: "Ong bao nhieu tuoi?" Crittenden reminds the students that if they do not pronounce the question correctly, they will have asked, "How much garlic?"
Later Crittenden holds her throat and motions to her students to count. "You have to form the sounds deep in your throat," she says, as the class utters noises that sound like a baby's jabbering.
Crittenden's students are struggling to learn about Vietnamese language and culture so they can better relate to the more than 2,000 Asian students in Arlington. Vietnamese, Laotian, Chinese and Korean students account for 15 percent of the student population of 14,500.
"I don't expect to become fluent by participating, but I hope this fall I can make my Asian students feel more at ease in my classroom," said Michael Gorman, an Arlington Spanish teacher who also teaches English to foreign students.
That's what Peter Hung Do, a coordinator in the Arlington School Community Relations Department, had in mind when he asked the school system for a classroom and circulated memos inviting staff members to learn about his homeland. Do volunteers time twice a week to lead the sessions on culture, cooking and conversational skills. There are 15 in the class, which is open to anyone in Northern Virginia.
Crittenden, who teaches English as a second language in two Arlington elementary schools, also donates her time. She was an interpreter in Vietnam for the International Rescue Committee before coming to the United States.
Margaret Heckard, public information officer for the Arlington schools, said people participating in the class receive no credit or pay. "These people are just motivated by a desire to learn and to help our foreign students," she said.
Theresa Flynn, a secretary at Patrick Henry Elementary School who is studying at night to become a librarian, said she makes time for the class because "it helps me do my job better."
"My school is really like the United Nations. Sometimes there are misunderstandings when I have to call an Asian parent and ask them to pick up a sick child or come to the school for a meeting. The schools have very good interpreters, but they aren't always available on the spur of the moment," she said.
Last spring, Flynn said, office personnel tried to explain to a Vietnamese parent what needed to be done to clear up a child's case of head lice. "The mother was very polite and we thought she understood that her daughter need not be kept at home," she said. When the little girl came back to school days later, her hair had been cut off.
"I hope that in the future I would be able to recognize the lack of communication and avoid a similar situation," Flynn said.
Another student in the class, Ellen Kahan, a coordinator for special education programs, said she hopes to be able to speak to parents of children with learning disabilities.
"We have a hard time explaining to parents what kinds of programs we have to offer. We have kids who cry all the time, and I can't even comfort them in their own language, much less assess what's causing their problems in the classroom," she said.
There is no word in Vietnamese for learning disabled, Crittenden said, and handicapped children generally are not sent to school.
Kahan said parents are usually grateful and work with special education instructors once they understand what a disorder like dyslexia means.
"But can you imagine what it's like trying to explain these disabilities to people from a culture where there is no concept for learning disorders and to whom you can't even say hello?" she asked.
Kahan said the exposure to Vietnamese will help her use interpreters more effectively. "I also hope to be able to at least address parents and children in their native tongue," she said.
Not all the students' time is spent in the classroom studying a language that doesn't have verb tenses or plurals. Do and Crittenden recently prepared a traditional Vietnamese dinner for the class, and they are planning an outing to a local restaurant where the students hope to order in Vietnamese.