A few months ago, Jane Stanfel posed a simple question to the cleaning woman at her office, but the only response she received was a blank look and a shrug of non-comprehension.
"She just stared," Stanfel said. "She had absolutely no idea what I was talking about."
Stanfel, 49, a secretary at the Defense Communication Agency in Arlington, speaks no Spanish, and the cleaning people at the agency, like many of the immigrants working in janitorial jobs in the Washington area, speak little English.
But Stanfel once worked in an adult literacy program in her native Tuscaloosa, Ala., for English speakers, and figured that the process for bilingual education couldn't be much different.
"I had my books with me," she said. "I asked her if she wanted me to help her learn the language."
That is how English lessons began at the agency, which designs and operates communications systems for the Defense Department.
Stanfel's private initiative grew into a full-fledged program when other maintenance workers expressed an interest in learning English and other agency employess a showed willingness to teach them.
There now are 30 volunteers and 20 students in the agency's volunteer language program, enough teachers to provide students with individualized tutoring, as well as to allow for substitutions when necessary.
Students and tutors meet a minimum of three times a week, forhalf-hour sessions generally held between noon and 12:30 p.m. In various corners of the agency -- a free conference room, an unoccupied office, even in a bathroom foyer -- in that midday half hour, students and their tutors can be found tackling particularly onerous English conjugations and pronunciations.
All of the students in the program are Hispanic, mostly from El Salvador, and represent all ages and levels of education.
"We have a few who are not even literate in Spanish," Stanfel said. "But we also have a woman who has a degree in physical therapy from her country."
In some cases, the half-hour stolen away from lunch for many of the cleaning people, who have families to care for and moonlight on second jobs, represents the only time they have to try to learn English.
"I've lived for 15 years in this country and always wanted to learn the language, but I never had the opportunity," said Hector Reyes, 38, a native of El Salvador who cleans offices 12 hours each day.
Tutors such as Tawny Stitely, 27, a management assistant at the agency, said they gladly sacrifice a portion of their lunch hour to teach in the language program.
"I studied Spanish for several years in college," Stitely said. "I enjoy making friends with those people. Now I get to practice my Spanish when they come in, and they get to practice their English with me."
"It's only 30 minutes a day, which you don't miss," said another tutor, Dayle West, 43, chief of policy management at the agency. "Especially when they're willing to make so many sacrifices themselves to learn the language."
Although the agency literacy program is only in its third week of formal operation, the program has yielded measurable results. Communication between both sets of workers has improved, employees said.
"The cleaning people used to be a nonentity, but now they're part of DCA," Stanfel said.
Because the program uses all volunteer tutors, it costs next to nothing to run. The agency provided $600 for the only major expense, learning materials for the students.
One of the students, Emmanuel Flores, 19, has been in this country only seven months, and his high school education contained only rudimentary English, he said.
"It's great for a Latin American that they've taken this interest in us and are helping us to learn English," said Flores, a native of Mexico.
"I'm trying to get ahead in this country, and this is a good program that will help me to do that," he said.
Like many of his fellow students, the three hours each week that Flores devotes to learning English are the only times he uses the language.
"My friends are all Mexicans and at work they're all Hispanics," Flores said. "But I think it will be a lot easier to make friends with Americans," he said, "once I'm able to communicate with them a little better."