Like many new immigrants to Southern California, Maral Saatjian gravitated toward the familiar. She got a job in a dentist's office in Glendale, where "the whole staff was Armenian. Everything was in Armenian."
There was little incentive to learn English.
But Saatjian, who studied to be a doctor in her home country, soon decided she needed a better job and a better understanding of life in the United States.
So she quit her job and entered Evans Adult School near downtown Los Angeles, where she is enrolled in an intensive English program with students from nations as far-flung as Taiwan, Ukraine and Mexico.
The program is intensive indeed. She and her classmates take five hours of classes a day, five days a week, and are assigned about two hours of homework each night.
Like her peers, Saatjian, 34, finds the rigors of classwork prevent her from holding down a job. That's all right with her: She wants to push ahead and train as a physician's assistant in the U.S. after leaving the school.
"It prepares you to go to college," she said of the language program. And, without it, "you wouldn't have the opportunity to learn about the people that you meet here."
Students come to the Intensive English Program at the tuition-free adult school for diverse reasons. Some are young adults who dream of earning a college degree in the U.S. Others are trained professionals with families who wish to open shop or practice their trade here.
The students, more than 350 of them, come from all over the globe: Bulgaria, Cameroon, Iran, Guatemala, Latvia, Cuba and Mongolia. What unites them, teachers and counselors said, is their enthusiasm for learning English and sharing in a daily cultural potluck of different accents, customs, attitudes and desserts.
"I like it here because I get to know different cultures. I get to share about my culture, my food, El Salvador," said Jose Morales, a 22-year-old seminary student who recently enrolled in a lower division of the program.
The courses, run by the Los Angeles Unified School District, were devised by English teachers at Evans in 1998 to replace the federally sponsored "visa program" that had been taught at Evans since the 1960s. Program Chairman Jim Mentel said that the teachers decided to adopt a new approach.
Instead of teaching grammar and conversation, teachers would give lessons in anthropology, history, art history, literature, business and other subjects. "Through that content, we're teaching the language," Mentel said.
During a recent class, a group of advanced students was discussing a landscape painting by a 17th century Dutch artist, as well as the 19th century British author Charlotte Bronte.
"This is very quiet, the tone is relaxed," said 24-year-old Georgian immigrant Ludmila Arutti, thumbing her copy of "Jane Eyre."
"The author writes about emotions, self-control," said Grace Li, 29, from the Xian region of China.
In other classes, students are taught skills that will help them in college, such as how to take notes, highlight texts and write timed essays. Or students give presentations on their home countries and share home-made samples of a favorite dish or dessert from their homeland.
On one recent night, the classroom treat was potato-filled piroshkis from Ukraine.
Friendships in the program cross ethnic lines. But disagreements among students over politics and social mores are common -- even welcome, as long as they are expressed in English.
"Almost everyone comes from a mono-ethnic society. Being from a multicultural society, you forget that some of them have never met someone from a different country, let alone 20," Mentel said.
Chihao Lin, a 23-year-old immigrant from Taiwan, agreed.
"Outside I only stay with my Chinese friends. I would not speak to Mexicans or Russians. But here I have to," he said smiling broadly. "No, I love to."
In Lin's discussion circle, other students nodded, adding that connecting with people of different backgrounds helps their language acquisition.
"For me it's an opportunity to hear different accents," said Victoria Khusit, a 22-year-old college graduate from Ukraine. "For instance, the Chinese accent. When I first got here I couldn't understand it. But now I do."
Students are directed to the program almost entirely through word-of-mouth. There are no fees, but textbooks aren't free. To enroll, students must be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma from their home country and sit through an extensive placement exam. By the time they finish, many will be able to go to "community college [and] they will be able to take the first college English class, English 101," said Marilyn Schafer, the program counselor.
Many achieve that goal -- although some return to their native countries with new skills.
Mexican immigrant Gabriela Castro, for instance, said that when she finishes she would return to her native city of Leon to work as an accountant.
For now, many students' successes are measured in small steps -- such as mastering a colloquialism or two.
"It's difficult to pick up the slang," said Diana Teran, 20, an immigrant from Mexico City in an advanced class.
"Watch a lot of morning television," Khusit suggested with a chuckle. "There's a lot of slang there."