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February 13, 1989|MARITA HERNANDEZ | Times Staff Writer and Growing numbers of people--mainly newly arrived immigrants--live and work in Southern California with only minimal command of English. To get a flavor of their experience, three bilingual reporters spent time on the streets around Los Angeles, speaking almost no English. Of course, they had the advantage of being able to understand what others were saying to and about them. Marita Hernandez spoke Spanish, Barbara Koh spoke Mandarin and George Stein spoke Russian. Here are their accounts:

For the Spanish-speaking, Los Angeles is hardly a foreign city.

Not only do the street names reflect the city's Mexican heritage and mother tongue, but blaring billboards in Spanish hawk everything from beer to panty hose, from cigarettes to Spanish-language telephone service. Turn on the radio and you can take your pick of Ranchera music standards, the latest salsa tunes and easy-listening Spanish-language rock.

As I discovered, whether hungry or out of gas, in need of directions, a driver's license, a job or a bank loan, there are people willing to help, and usually in Spanish.

Still, the level of fluency I encountered around the Los Angeles area ranged dramatically, from the well-honed diction of native speakers to the sometimes clumsy, but always practical, "Spanglish" of second- and third-generation Latinos to the barely intelligible and discordant tones of non-Latinos just learning the language.

In heavily Latino neighborhoods, where even the Jack-in-the-Box takes your order in Spanish, you can get by without a word of English. The new Korean owners at the corner mom-and-pop grocery have also picked up enough Spanish to communicate with employes and wait on customers. However, in mixed neighborhoods like Lincoln Heights where older Latino residents are being joined by Asian immigrants, communication can be a problem.

My best effort at enlisting the help of a young Asian woman at a Lincoln Heights realty office with English and Chinese writing on its outside sign was fruitless. Our frustrating exchange ended with her using the only Spanish word she knew, nada , which she kept repeating as she pointed me to the door.

But when I ventured to Pasadena, Santa Monica and even Chinatown or heavily Asian Monterey Park--a city of bilingual English and Chinese business signs, with an occasional Spanish translation thrown in--I often found someone who spoke the language, especially at public agencies like libraries and state employment offices.

Taking the bus was no problem. Even if the bus driver spoke no Spanish, there were Spanish-speaking passengers who volunteered directions to where I was going. When I asked a sheriff's deputy for directions, she asked me to wait uno momento until her sergeant returned to the parked patrol car. When he did, the Latino sergeant politely told me in Spanish how to get to my destination.

Even private firms I visited, which are under no legal obligation to offer bilingual services, often had someone on hand able to talk to me.

The cashier behind the glass booth at a corner gas station in Pasadena motioned me to wait. She did not understand Spanish, but there was someone in back who did.

A man in oil-stained coveralls walked my way, wiping his hands on a rag. "En que le puedo ayudar?" ("How may I help you?"), he asked.

The mechanic spoke not only Spanish, English and his native Armenian but boasted good-humoredly: "I speak Turkish, Iranian, Persian, French, Italian, too."

At the Sumitomo Bank in Monterey Park, I gravitated toward the one Latina face I spotted amid a sea of young Japanese- and Chinese-speaking bank officers sitting behind neat rows of desks. The young Latina, who said she had worked at the bank three years, made me feel at home while supplying me with the loan information I wanted.

And even at the Chinatown Community Service Center, I found someone to encourage me--in Spanish more fluent than my own--to fill out the necessary application form for a job-training program offered there. The young woman turned out to be Panamanian.

Appearances can be deceiving, as anyone aware of Latin Americas' mestizaje , or mixing of Indian, black, Asian and European races, will tell you. The adage appears even more fitting in multi-ethnic Los Angeles.

The dark-skinned girl with the high cheekbones whom I approached in Spanish at a fast-food restaurant in Pasadena deferred to her fair-skinned and blond Spanish-speaking co-worker. The young woman said she learned Spanish from her Mexican mother.

Not only can looks be deceiving in terms of language, but attitude as well.

At the Department of Motor Vehicles office nearby, a rack filled with literature offered drivers' booklets in Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese, reflecting the cacophony of languages heard among applicants waiting in line.

At the information desk, a young Latino answered my questions in broken Spanish. Yes, he said. I could take the written driving exam in Spanish. But, the actual driving test would probably be in English.

"You have to learn English anyway," he said. "What happens if you get stopped on the road by a policeman? You have to be able to understand him."

But what was I to do meanwhile, I pleaded. He shrugged.

Reassurance came from an Anglo clerk I approached at another counter. "Don't worry about the test," she said in fluent Spanish. "You just have to be able to follow simple directions like 'left,' 'right,' 'turn,' 'stop.' "

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