Since Maria Perez came here from El Salvador a year and a half ago with no money, little clothing and no English, her schoolroom has been a 15th Street NW hair salon and her teachers have been people such as Anna Hernandez.

Hernandez delivers her language lessons clad in a turquoise jacket, black bustier and eight-inch dangly earrings, while deftly brandishing her blow-dryer.

"Maria's trying hard. She comes up to us and asks for translations of new words and writes them down," Hernandez said last week, as she gave a "big hair" flip to a customer's bangs. "She came to me the other day to ask how to say pina in English -- you know, 'pineapple' -- and 'scissors' and 'hair,' anything new."

Perez, who shampoos customers' hair and sweeps up at Piaf in Northwest Washington, is just one of the legions of workers who are managing to make a living in this country despite knowing little or no English.

In the Washington area job market, hungry as it is for entry-level and minimum-wage workers, immigrants with little more than rudimentary English skills are finding jobs in construction, warehouses, restaurants, janitorial services, child care and other service-sector employment.

For Perez, as for many of the others streaming into the area these days from Central America, Vietnam, Ethiopia and elsewhere, work is the first stop on the road to becoming American.

"I have a big admiration," she said, through Hernandez's translation, "for all the people here."

Learning the language takes a back seat to the struggles to survive for many immigrants, Hernandez said.

"They're working so hard to make it, they don't have time or money to take English classes," she said. "Maria will go to a school soon, but for now, if she's learned 'hair,' 'makeup,' 'perm,' she's okay."

Refugee services workers say that's just the attitude they want to foster.

"If they're employable, we urge them to go into the work force right away and take 'English as a second language' classes on the side," said David Lewis, director of Migrant and Refugee Services in the D.C. area for Associated Catholic Charities.

"They'll learn not only American language but customs too. They'll become more acculturated," he said. "I'm convinced that the work environment is going to be good therapy."

Work makes Dang Mai Lai feel like she is catching up on lost time.

"It was too hard to go to university because of my father's politics," said Dang, who came to this country in February and works at the Maryland Vietnamese Mutual Aid Association. "I had to wait eight years to get permission to come to the U.S."

Growing up in Saigon, Dang learned enough English to teach others, but found when she arrived here that she couldn't comprehend fast-talking Americans. The job she eventually found at the Vietnamese aid organization involves helping others fill out the forms to apply for welfare, but she said she never considered government assistance for herself.

"I don't apply for welfare," she said, "because I want to make me speak English fluently and understand the way to live here."

Similarly, Chooi Kong picked up her lessons about American life and lingo on the job. A receptionist at Montgomery College's Department of Reading and English as a Second Language, the Cantonese-speaking Malaysian still speaks a halting English.

Kong was barely able to make herself understood when she arrived eight years ago, but customers at the Chinese restaurants and carryouts where she worked helped her improve.

"They teach you the way to pronounce things. They are very nice," she said, "though I do have some nasty ones."

Kong, who lives with her sister, a cosmetologist, in Silver Spring, completed a two-year degree program at Montgomery College. She works full-time for the college and is studying accounting at the University of Maryland.

Ampara "Maria" Polido, meanwhile, is sticking with the education she can obtain at Piaf. The Colombian-born manicurist, who came to this country in 1986, is well-versed in the vocabulary of her field -- "sculptured nails," "tri-colored nails" "repairs" and "tips" -- but otherwise she hasn't learned much English. On slow mornings the other manicurist, who is American, helps her.

Polido, a 41-year-old whose bright red nails contrasted with her pale green shirt, asks co-workers for help with her English, but said her inability to speak well has never made her anxious or given her much trouble.

"I never worry about my work," Polido, who was a manicurist in Colombia, said through Hernandez. "Only about getting to work, not getting stranded or lost."

Polido rides in on the Metro ("I learned it through my girlfriends") and returns home to Wheaton with her husband, who works for a masonry company.

There are things she misses about Colombia. It was prettier there, she said, tropical. And she lived in a house, not an apartment. But for Polido, as for many immigrants, the primary attraction of the United States is to be found on the job.

"The money I'm making here," she said, "would give me a wealthy living back home."

It's clear from the way co-workers kid with and hug Perez that working at Piaf has brought the 29-year-old more than a paycheck. She's found a kind of family here. Hernandez, for example, is sponsoring Perez's application for U.S. citizenship.

Co-workers have even inspired her to become a hairstylist. Holding forth in the laundry room during her break Friday, Perez revealed that she has already colored her sister's hair and given a cousin a perm.

"No! You're kidding!" her co-workers shrieked with delight.

Perhaps the staff helps Perez because they can empathize: The stylists and manicurists come from Jamaica, Colombia, Ethiopia, Israel, Yugoslavia and Iran. And the owners are Moroccan.

Hernandez, a Cuban American and the only Spanish-speaking student in her school when she was growing up in College Park, says she'll never forget what it was like to be different.

Hernandez was so ashamed of her accent that she practiced "American English" every night by speaking into a tape recorder, she said, forcing herself "to say 'cat,' not 'gat,' and 'yellow,' not 'jellow.' "

"The kids were cruel. They'd call you 'Ricky Ricardo's cousin,' " she said. "They'd say, 'Get back on your banana boat.' "