The Tower of Babel has relocated to the beginning class in English as a Second Language (ESL) at Jewish Vocational Service. Twelve students are crammed into school desks, trying to unscramble sentences on mimeographed sheets.
An Albanian woman whispers to a Russian man. The Bangladeshi woman swaps theories with an African gentleman. There is a whiff of English, a word here or there, but mostly the air beats with the nouns and verbs of distant lands.
Nina Kuzmich, here just one month from Belarus, leans toward Azza Mohammed from Sudan and asks in Russian if her answer is right. Ms. Mohammed nods sweetly behind her head scarf, not understanding a word.
"No! No russki!" Nancy Fisher, director of education and training, reminds Ms. Kuzmich gently.
"But I don't understand," Kuzmich replies in Russian.
Welcome to the center for emergency English.
The great immigration wave of the 1990s with 13.2 million newcomers is flooding classrooms where people can learn the Anglo-Saxon tongue. In 2000, 1.1 million adults studied in federally funded ESL programs (increasingly labeled English for Speakers of Other Languages ESOL to reflect people who are multilingual).
From New York City to Portland, Ore., immigrants' organizations and volunteer groups are facing intense demand from people desperate to learn the words that will help them win better jobs and decipher the customs and curiosities of American life. But funding isn't keeping up, and it can be a long wait to get into an ESL program.
In New York State, 1 million immigrants need English classes, but there are seats for only 50,000, a study for the New York Immigration Coalition found.
In Massachusetts, more than 14,000 residents have enrolled in English classes paid for by the government but 15,500 more have signed up, according to the state Department of Education.
"Immigrants recognize that English is the key to better jobs, to getting ahead and building a better life," says Barbara Strack, director of the Center for the New American Community at the National Immigration Forum in Washington. "It's for the benefit of the mainstream to help them. There's a mutual interest and we're really dropping the ball."
Here at Jewish Vocational Service in East Orange, N.J., as many as 500 students a year from South America, Bosnia, Iran, Bangladesh, the former Soviet Union, and beyond vie for all-day ESOL classes. With space tight, the emphasis is on helping students become comfortable enough with the language and culture to begin working. JVS also helps them find their first job.
"They're here 30 hours a week. If they're here five months, they're not Oxford scholars, but they know enough language to go out in the working world," Ms. Fisher says.
More advanced classes review tips on interviewing for jobs and filling out tax forms.
Students who linger beyond four to five months are urged to find another program. "If we had more funding, we would open more classes," Fisher says.
Community colleges and adult-education centers affiliated with local school districts are doing their best to satisfy the ESL demand. Years back, adult-education programs focused on preparing students for their high-school equivalency diploma. Now they host English classes filled with computer programmers from Ukraine and housekeepers from Ecuador.
Not everyone signing up for English class is a new immigrant. "They came here, worked at menial jobs, and realized they need English to get better jobs," says Eileen Hansen, chairwoman of the ESL department at Middlesex County College in Edison, N.J.
The school enrolled 1,200 students in ESL last year. Students pay $80 per credit hour, with most classes awarding three or four credits.
More people would like to take such classes, but money has long been scarce. Congress set aside $70 million in 2002 for literacy and civics education nearly a threefold increase from 2000. But most experts say that is not enough to coach the 21.3 million foreign-born residents who indicated on the 2000 census that they do not speak English well.
Some states are racing to reallocate money to catch up with the needs of their new residents. States like Iowa, Arkansas, and Delaware are asking for guidance as new arrivals flock to the assembly lines at chicken- and beef-processing plants.
"A lot of people are calling us to say, 'How do we do this?' " says MaryAnn Florez, assistant director of the National Center for Literacy Education. "You've got states that may not have adult ESL infrastructure in place. The programs are scrambling to find teachers, to find resources, to find seats."
In many cases, companies are providing language help. Frustrated that their employees do not understand one another and don't have time for classes after work, some firms have contracted with teaching organizations to bring training right into the workplace. Jewish Vocational Service, for instance, has taught ESOL to physicians, hotel housekeepers, and factory workers throughout New Jersey.
Volunteers have also stepped in to help fill the gap. In Elizabeth, N.J., immigrants who cannot fill out a form asking for name and address line up each Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Elizabeth Public Library to be matched with a volunteer.
They may have to wait months for this coaching, which is designed to get them up to a fifth-grade reading level.
Women from the Middle East and India who have never learned to read or write do not possess the coordination to focus their eyes to read or steady their hand to grip a pencil.
"You start with circles on big sheets of paper, and work down," said Ligita Rafaels, executive director for the Middlesex volunteers. "We're like a homeless shelter. We're for people who wouldn't survive anywhere else."
Blerim Serjdiu, enrolled in a class at Jewish Vocational, expresses a common sentiment when he talks about how lucky he feels to be in the US and learning English. The young man from Kosovo left his war-torn land and arrived at Newark International Airport with a visa problem. He spent his first six months in an INS detention center while authorities investigated his background.
Now free and living with his sister, he sees English classes as a steppingstone to a college degree and perhaps someday his own business.
"It's important for the future. I see my future in this country," Mr. Serjdiu says. "If not for JVS, I go to work in some restaurant, a dishwasher. I can't learn English, maybe ever."