It's All Spoken Here

The debate over language grows intense as cities like L.A. become more diverse. English-only advocates warn of

ALTHOUGH HE IS ONE OF THE TOP students learning English at the Wilshire Language School in Koreatown, Doo Hun Park said he rarely practices his English outside the classroom.

“When I drop by a supermarket, a Korean restaurant or a liquor store, I don’t say anything in English,” said Park, 31, who moved to Koreatown from Seoul 1 1/2 years ago. “Everything here is catered to us.”

Likewise, when Francisco Simon moved to Los Angeles in 1989, he spoke only K’anjobal, one of many indigenous languages of his native Guatemala. The 17-year-old Belmont High School student since has learned Spanish and English, but finds himself speaking Spanish more than any other language.

“You need to speak Spanish here,” he said, as he stood outside the Angelica Lutheran Church in his Pico-Union neighborhood. “I speak English at school, K’anjobal to my family and Spanish to almost everybody else.”

Despite occasional language barriers, Simon, Park and others who speak little or no English said they have little trouble communicating in Los Angeles, where roughly half the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to the 1990 U.S. Census. Although most of those interviewed said they would like to learn English to increase their employment opportunities, few considered it essential.

The multitude of languages spoken here and in other cities has stirred a bitter debate between those who believe English should be the predominant language of the United States and those who believe the government should provide the growing non-English-speaking population with more multilingual services.

English-only advocates such as Chris Doss of U.S. English, a Washington-based advocacy group, blame the federal, state and local governments for creating “linguistic apartheid” by providing immigrants with services in their own language.

But language rights advocates such as Kathryn Imahara of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center accuse their opponents of using the language issue to mask anti-immigration sentiments.

Meanwhile, the roughly 1.6 million Los Angeles residents at the center of this debate have generally stayed out of the controversy and say they are trying to lead independent lives with whatever language skills they have.

Miyuki Nagamine, a 70-year-old Japanese immigrant who is a missionary for the Tenrikyo Church in Boyle Heights, has lived in Los Angeles 33 years but speaks only a few words of English. Despite the language barrier, she has managed to draw dozens of curious Americans to her church.

“I use my head and my heart,” Nagamine said in Japanese.

Recently, Nagamine tried to encourage Ann Marie Jones to visit the church by handing her a religious pamphlet and saying one of the few English phrases she has memorized: “Anytime, come. Thank you.”

“I don’t know what she said, but it sounded good,” Jones said later.

Although language issues have been debated for many years, the controversy appears to be growing more intense as cities like Los Angeles become more diverse.

In 1980, only about 35% of Angelenos spoke a language other than English at home, according the U.S. Census. That figure rose to about 50% in 1990, and is projected to increase even more by 2000.

Today, on any street corner in Pico-Union, Boyle Heights and Westlake, vendors hawk everything from helados to chicharrones in Spanish, while the rhythmic sounds of salsa, cumbia and ranchera blast over the loudspeakers of local music stores.

At a Latino-owned doughnut and ice cream shop in Koreatown, Latino customers place their orders in Spanish, while Korean men sip coffee and flip through pages of a Korean newspaper. Although many Filipino immigrants learned English in the Philippines, they speak Tagalog, their native language, along Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue, while Chinatown residents greet each other in Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

In Koreatown, where large Latino and Asian populations overlap, the increasing polyglot nature of the city is especially evident. While patrolling the streets on a Friday night, about half a dozen members of a volunteer crime-prevention team heard a report via ham radio that police officers had stopped three Spanish-speaking men suspected of stealing a bus pass.

The Korean-American patrol members stopped to assist the three officers, none of whom spoke Spanish. After police failed to communicate with the suspects, Jong Kim, who has lived in Mexico and speaks Korean and Spanish, stepped in to question the suspects. He then translated the Spanish responses into Korean for fellow patrol member Jaeis Chon, who relayed the information in English to the officers.

“This happens a lot,” Chon said. “I speak Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and English, and I use these languages a lot to help the police. I don’t want the police to waste their time trying to question people when we can do it faster.”

The fact that non-English-speaking enclaves have sprung up throughout the country troubles English-only proponents, who say the government should pressure immigrants to learn English.

U.S. English believes that the government should not use taxpayers’ money to provide multilingual services except for public welfare, safety and justice.

“Everyone should retain their culture and share it with each other through a common language,” said Doss, a field director at U.S. English, which has 500,000 national members and lobbies for English-only legislation. “The only way immigrants can become first-class citizens is if they speak the common language. Otherwise, they won’t have widespread access to job and educational opportunities.”

Doss and others who share this philosophy point to the Latino National Political Survey, which shows that at least 40% of Latinos support English as the official U.S. language, while at least 90% believe U.S. residents should learn English. The survey, released late last year by four Latino professors from various universities and based on face-to-face interviews with 2,800 Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans, is considered the most extensive effort to measure Latino attitudes to date.

But those on the other side of the debate say the data are not indicative of “linguistic apartheid.”

“The picture U.S. English paints is completely exaggerated,” said Robin Toma, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “They start painting an image of a society where no one can understand each other, but the U.S. has always been an immigrant country. Every immigrant knows learning English is the key to real success in this country.”

While signing up for an English as a Second Language class at Manual Arts High School in the Exposition Park area, Paula Ernestina, a 41-year-old Mexican immigrant and mother of five, said she would like to learn English to better communicate with her children’s teachers.

“I’ve been able to survive without speaking English because I stay at home, and where we live, the majority of people speak Spanish,” she said in Spanish. “But we are in a country where the majority speaks English and we should learn it to understand what’s going on.”

Other non-English speakers say that while they get along fine most days, there have been times when their limited English skills have caused them grief.

Wai Yung Chan, 78, a Chinatown resident, remembers the time she got on the No. 12 bus, only to learn that the route had changed. Bewildered by the unfamiliar streets, she got off the bus and began to cry.

“A lady came over to me, patted me on the shoulder and all I could say was, ‘Chinatown, Chinatown,’ ” Chan said through a Chinese interpreter. “She told me which bus to get on and I went home. She was a very nice lady.”

On a different occasion, Chan, who moved to Los Angeles from Hong Kong in 1979, went to a Social Security office only to learn that the only Chinese-speaking employee on staff was unavailable. “A lady there gave me some papers and said, ‘Go.’ ” Chan said. “So I just went home.”

Imahara of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center said English-only advocates are using the language issue to spread anti-immigration sentiments.

“That’s what’s driving a lot of the rhetoric,” she said. “And if you couch it in language terms, you can get away with it. . . . It’s interesting where people stand — even liberal people — when it comes to language.”

In 1986, after English-only advocates waged an extensive campaign, 73% of California’s voters approved Proposition 63, which made English the state’s official language.

While Proposition 63 is largely symbolic and does not call for eliminating any multilingual services, language rights activists say it provides politicians and employers with a tool to discriminate against immigrants who do not speak English by establishing English-only rules in the workplace and allowing legislators to draft legislation that curbs multilingual programs.

“We’re seeing more negative reactions to the presence of other languages because we’re in a recession,” said Esteban Lizardo, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Whenever we have economic problems, we see a backlash against minorities.”

A 1974 state law requires state agencies to provide bilingual assistance if 5% or more of their service area speaks another language, but not all agencies comply, Imahara said.

“Basically, if an agency screams ‘Poor,’ they don’t have to abide by the law,” she said. “It’s not enforced. The only way you’ll see changes is if community groups start screaming that they need service.”

At the same time, however, various governmental agencies are expanding their multilingual services. For example, Los Angeles voters now can get sample ballots in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese as a result of 1992 amendments to the federal Voting Rights Act.

California residents can take the written driver’s license test in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, while about 160,000 Los Angeles Unified School District students are enrolled in Spanish, Armenian, Korean, Cantonese, Tagalog, Russian or Japanese bilingual classes. A 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision requires school districts to offer assistance to students whose English skills are limited, including instruction in their native language, if necessary.

“This segregation of languages through bilingual education is causing a lot of divisions in our district,” said Sally Peterson, a teacher at Glenwood Elementary in Sun Valley and president of the Learning English Advocates Drive group. “If you speak Spanish in class and on the playground with friends, there’s not much incentive to learn English. I think if you taught more English, you would hear more English on the playground.”

English-only advocates say they are irritated that many immigrants do not feel the need to learn English because schools and other governmental agencies cater to them in their own language.

But Guatemala-native Antonio Simon (no relation to Francisco Simon) said he has not learned English because his 10-hour-a-day job at a Downtown sewing factory leaves him little free time. Although he speaks both K’anjobal and Spanish, he cannot read or write in Spanish because he attended school for only a few years in Guatemala.

“I want to take classes but I have to work,” he said in Spanish. “When I return home, I’m tired. Yes, there are times when I need to speak English, but I don’t have time. I’m just picking up words little by little.”

Others say they are having trouble learning English because they cannot get into English as a Second Language classes.

Domingo Rodriguez, coordinator of adult ESL classes for the Los Angeles school district, said about 30,000 adults are on a waiting list for the district’s ESL program. The largest provider of adult ESL classes in the country, L.A. Unified serves more than 200,000 students.

Like other departments within the school district, the adult ESL program faces financial hardships — its $52-million budget was cut by $1 million this year. An additional $6 million is expected to be trimmed from next year’s budget.

“We’re projecting cutbacks of teachers and support staff, which means we may have to reduce classes and increase class sizes,” Rodriguez said.

Recently, about 100 adults stood in line along the halls at Manual Arts High School waiting to register for ESL classes. The line extended outside one of the buildings, where cars were double-parked and parking lot attendants were turning people away.

“Sometimes we are treated badly because we don’t speak English,” Mexican immigrant Sergio Ortega Enriquez said in Spanish. “. . . If you get on the bus and you don’t speak English and you ask for directions or you don’t have change, the drivers are rude.

“I don’t like when this happens. We all have our own cultures and no one is better than anyone else.”

Languages in Los Angeles

Listed below are the 1990 U.S. Census figures of primary languages spoken in Los Angeles homes:

NUMBER OF % OF
LANGUAGE PEOPLE POPULATION English 1,606,215 50.1 Spanish or Spanish Creole 1,131,728 35.3 Other Indo-European Language 76,101 2.4 Pilipino (Tagalog) 64,915 2.0 Korean 63,473 2.
Chinese 58,028 1.8 Other Languages 39,660 1.2 Japanese 23,583 0.7 French or French Creole 20,135 0.6 German 15,839 0.5 Vietnamese 15,097 0.5 Indic 13,557 0.4 Italian 12,008 0.4 Arabic 11,941 0.4 Russian 11,494 0.4 Yiddish 6,716 0.2 Hungarian 5,732 0.2 Polish 4,828 0.2 South Slavic 4,794 0.1 Greek 4,401 0.1 Mon-Khmer 3,925 0.1 Scandinavian 3,360 0.1 Portuguese 3,328 0.1 Other West Germanic Language 2,900 0.1 Other Slavic Language 2,030 0.1 Native North American Languages 614 *
TOTAL 3,206,402

* Less than one-tenth of 1%

This story was reported by Times staff writers Diane Seo and Robert J. Lopez, and community correspondents Jake Doherty and Iris Uokoi. It was written by Seo.



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