When Luis Orlando Arias was a young delivery boy in his native El Salvador, one of his favorite stops was the Japanese Embassy. He would gaze wistfully at posters of Japanese temples and graceful women in kimonos strolling under the shade of cherry blossom trees. He yearned to learn more about the culture he had grown to admire, but the dream seemed as distant as Japan itself.
Then he came to Los Angeles. Within a few years, Arias developed a taste for sushi and made new friends at Little Tokyo piano bars and arcades. A school bus driver who speaks English and Spanish, Arias has been studying Japanese at Los Angeles City College with the hope that it might someday broaden his opportunities.
"For me it's been a dream come true, a triumph," said Arias, 36, who still harbors dreams of travel to Japan and plans to study Korean next.
Increasingly in this multilingual city, learning a second or third language is becoming an advantage, if not a necessity. The practicalities of doing business in an international capital, as well as the simple desire to communicate with new neighbors from Latin America and Asia, is fueling a surge in the popularity of foreign languages in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles phenomenon is part of a burgeoning national movement, spurred by the desire to make the country more competitive, according to experts in the field. Since the mid-1980s, high school and college foreign language enrollments have been rising significantly throughout the country. Berlitz Learning Centers for adults, the world's leading language school, reports significant national growth, with California among the leading states.
Students are flocking to classes--particularly Spanish and, increasingly, Japanese--on university campuses and at some community colleges and private language schools throughout Los Angeles County. Some schools report a growing demand by private firms and public agencies for classes offered at the work-site and tailored to their needs. The translating and interpreting business, meanwhile, is booming, with the ranks of court interpreters almost doubling each year, according to leaders in that field.
The city's diverse ethnic mix provides unique combinations of languages and students. Downtown lawyers and bankers, eager to do business with the Orient, crowd Japanese classes; Korean merchants setting up shop in East Los Angeles practice their Spanish; a jeweler at I. Magnin studies Korean to better serve his growing Asian clientele.
Those attracted to foreign language classes "are reading the same information we're reading that says the future of Los Angeles is multicultural," said Marianne Kanter, coordinator of language courses at UCLA's extension program. "And they're preparing themselves for that eventuality."
Carmelita Arsena Thomas, who runs the study-abroad program at Los Angeles City College, also credits the new interest in languages to the realization that, in international trade, "our competitors are beating us at our own game because they have an edge of dealing with other cultures on their terms. Finally, the American business community is becoming aware that we have to know the language and culture of countries we want to do business with."
Japanese is favored among businessmen, the fastest-growing language in the city, according to language experts. Some schools are also seeing increased demand for other Asian and some Middle Eastern languages. While traditionally strong Romance languages, particularly French, are holding their own, Spanish remains overwhelmingly the most popular language.
Syrian-born Anahid Warwarian, 23, an accounting major at Los Angeles City College, said she decided to learn Spanish soon after coming from Canada to Los Angeles, where she found that Spanish is the city's "second language." Though she already speaks four languages, Spanish has helped her interpret for her jeweler husband and his Latino employees, she said.
"It's imperative that we learn to appreciate Latino culture and the language since we live in the heart of it," said Derrick Harrison, a free-lance writer who lives in Echo Park. After struggling through a Spanish class at the community college last semester, Harrison compares not knowing Spanish in Los Angeles to "going to a symphonic concert, listening but not being able to hear the brass or the violin sections."
Suddenly, international bankers and merchants who floundered in high school and college French and Spanish classes now listen to Japanese language cassettes on their drive in to work, practicing with colleagues in the office.
Until Kenneth Slade joined the international law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, he thought that "studying languages was something you did in high school," he said. But when Slade moved to California from the East Coast a few years ago, he found the large Japanese presence here "startling."