The dilemma of bilingual education in the Washington area is that each teacher would have to be at least trilingual to teach the many languages of such a diverse foreign-born populace.

In Alexandria alone, children from 55 countries speak 40 different languages, making it impractical at best to hire enough teachers to meet language needs, educators say.

"It would be impossible for us to have a program in bilingual education," said Mary Neale Garrett, a curriculum specialist for the Alexandria school system. "You would have to have quite a diversified faculty."

And so bilingual education has had little impact in this area. Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County and Prince George's County do not offer any bilingual education, although Arlington does have some bilingual teachers' aides. In Montgomery County and the District bilingual classes are offered along with English as a Second Language classes.

Several area educators said they believe English instruction moves foreign-born children into regular classrooms faster. "We wanted them to be successful in the mainstream," said Arlington Program Supervisor Emma Violand deHainer, explaining the county's decision to abandon after five years a bilingual program begun in 1976.

In all six area school districts, participating students generally take basic academic subjects in English as a Second Language classes for up to half the school day, then return to regular classrooms for subjects like music, art and physical education.

Maria Schaub, who directs Montgomery County's ESL program, said it takes the average non-English speaking child about 2 1/2 years to learn English, but the range is six months to four years.

In the District, education for non-English speakers comes in several forms. Two public elementary schools -- Oyster and Bancroft -- offer extensive bilingual classes. At other schools, only a few classes are offered, or students study with teachers who rove from school to school during the day.

At Oyster, even English-speaking students take classes in Spanish, because each class has two teachers, one teaching in each language. "The entire school is bilingual, from the principal to the person who cleans the building," said Hugo C. Galindo, an official of the city's bilingual education division. Bancroft is moving in the same direction.

There are 7,000 child and adult students -- out of a total enrollment of 89,000 -- taking the District's classes for foreign speakers. Most are in ESL programs.

Students with weak academic skills as well as lack of English learn basic subjects in their native language and verbal skills in English. Most are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, where war disrupted their education. The aim is to get them into regular classrooms within a year, but this year almost 40 percent had to continue in the ESL program, instead of being mainstreamed, Galindo said.

In Montgomery County, English-speaking students can take all their classes in French -- the "immersion" method of language teaching -- at Oakview Elementary School. There is a Spanish immersion program at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School, and a modified Spanish program at Oakview. But in Montgomery County, ESL classes are the dominant method..

When the program began in 1977, it was the offspring of diplomats or international employes who filled the classes; now most come from refugee or immigrant families.

At the high school level in Montgomery County, some classes are offered in Spanish and Vietnamese, Schaub said, and the county hopes to offer some classes in Korean. As the students learn more English, the classes switch to English.

Enrollment in bilingual education and ESL classes and program costs in other local districts:

Alexandria: 900 children, (8 percent of the school population) enrolled in ESL classes, with a budget of about $445,000.

Arlington: 1,900 students, (13 percent), $1.9 million.

Montgomery: 3,800 students (4 percent), $3.2 million (next year).

The District: 4,350 students, plus 2,876 adult students (8 percent). $2.6 million (next year).

Fairfax County: 3,800 students (2 percent), nearly $2 million.

Prince George's County: 1,600 students (1.5 percent), $607,000.