A hush fell on Federal Way City Hall, and Jeanette Brizendine's colleagues waited to hear how she would pronounce the word "excelente. " She tried on...

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A hush fell on Federal Way City Hall, and Jeanette Brizendine’s colleagues waited to hear how she would pronounce the word “excelente.”

She tried on an accent, and lo and behold, it didn’t sound like English. But it didn’t sound like Spanish, either.

“That’d be French,” said her teacher, Patrick Doherty, the city’s economic development director.

In homes all across Federal Way, people are speaking Spanish: The percentage has nearly tripled since 1990, and many city officials are struggling to understand what’s being said. So every Tuesday, 10 of them are taking matters into their own hands. Tired of putting people on hold, tired of looking for a translator, they’re learning Spanish during lunch.

It’s not just a matter of being nice. There are rules and regulations to explain to these new residents, but who has the words?

Doherty does. He “went to town” with Spanish back when he was a student at Ardmore Elementary School in Bellevue. Now at 48, he is fluent in Portuguese, French, Italian, Catalan and Russian. His German, Romanian and Czech are passable. His Japanese is in the early stages.

It’s an awful lot of hard work.

“While other people are there on the beach with their trashy novels, I’m sitting there with my textbook,” Doherty said.

Since he arrived in Federal Way several years ago, Doherty has been busy recruiting business and brokering deals for this city of about 87,000. Last year, for a charity drive, he decided to donate his services as a Spanish teacher.

He’d done it before, in college. And it might be a nice change from picking through documents, squinting at a computer screen, talking into a phone. So he offered, and a dozen city employees bit.

Students being students, some dropped out. But a year later, Doherty “graduated” two hardy city souls. Becky Lemke, a code-compliance officer, was one of them.

Before taking the class, Lemke was often at a loss with Spanish speakers. She would gesture wildly when she wanted a car moved off a lawn. Now she can string together a sentence.

“I call it my ‘Tarzan Spanish,’ ” said Lemke. “Improper usage, but they get the drift.”

People appreciate the effort. And they’re eager for the connection. Lemke saw it when she spoke broken Spanish to apartment dwellers about mold. A couple of days later, calls flooded in.

“They must have spread the word,” she said. “I was like: Uh-oh.”

Federal Way is already known for its outreach to Koreans, who make up 7 percent of the population. Now the city has hired a liaison for its Hispanic community, which has jumped to 11 percent in less than two decades.

It’s unclear how much the class at City Hall helps. But last Tuesday, Brizendine, a recycling project manager, was feeling optimistic. Other classes wandered around in the weeds with grammar. This one had a practical focus on pronunciation.

“It’s helped me feel more comfortable and confident when I’m speaking,” she said.

This particular day, the class was practicing phrases. The blue bathrooms (los baños azules). The pleasant and intelligent conversation (la conversación agradable e inteligente). It was such a challenge, rolling those R’s, stressing those E’s. And then, there was that Z.

Doherty understood the student struggle completely.

“If the S is an S, and the Z is an S, then why don’t they just use an S?” he said.

But they don’t. And so the class moved on.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com. News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.