- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

With a hint of nervousness showing on her face, Grace Gonzales, 27, approached the table.

“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked, scanning the table for looks of approval from her classmates, the other employees at Cuna del Sol, a Guatemalan restaurant in Manassas.

Jose Tenas, the owner of the restaurant, has enrolled seven members of his staff in English classes for the past week to help them better serve English-speaking customers.

“Learning English is very important because I like to give good service to my customers,” he said. “I have a lot of American customers right now, and we need to learn how to serve them.”

The class was designed by Stephanie Williams, the director of the Spanish and English Regional Language Academy and Training Center, to introduce restaurant employees to common English phrases to help them do everything from greeting customers to taking their checks.

“We have been focusing on the minimum language that the waitresses need to start interacting with their English-speaking customers,” Miss Williams said yesterday. “The idea was to break down the [language] barrier and to make the customer feel comfortable.”

Miss Williams said she was a waitress in college, so she also understands the everyday challenges faced by her students at Cuna del Sol.

She said her arrival to Prince William County about 16 years ago, when Hispanics also started coming, gives her insight into the challenges the influx of immigrants pose to this once-rural community. The Hispanic population in the county has more than doubled since 2000, according a recent census report.

Miss Williams’ work helping Hispanics in the region includes jobs as a court interpreter and liaison during the notorious Lorena Bobbitt trial, she said.

In the class, the waitresses often participated in role-playing exercises, which Miss Williams included to make them feel more relaxed.

“They’ve gained confidence, and it’s really their first time using English in some cases,” she said. “One or two of them were kind of embarrassed and looked around and laughed, but I really think they’re doing quite well.”

After completing the course yesterday, the women agreed that they now feel more comfortable speaking English.

Yasmin Tenas, 21, said before the classes some of the waitresses who knew little English would hide in the back of the restaurant because they were too afraid to talk to customers.

“Now they have more confidence and have lost their shyness because they now know how to greet and work with” English speakers, she said.

Miss Williams said many people are unaware that Hispanic immigrants frequently come to the United States with little more than a sixth-grade education, which gives them limited language skills, even in their native Spanish.

“After taking this course, I’ve had more success as a waitress, and I feel encouraged to continue to learn [more] English,” wrote a waitress in her course evaluation.

Miss Gonzales said she and some of the other waitresses will continue to take classes.

“Learning English will give us more opportunities,” she said. “We can now go further and have another career if we want to.”

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