With more than 19,000 Thai residents, Los Angeles County has the largest Thai population--and possibly the greatest concentration of Thai restaurants--outside of the Southeast Asian country.
Yet, until now, the Thai language was not taught at any public college or university in the area, a fact that left a bad taste for Thai community leaders.
"I want people to be more aware of Thai culture than just Thai food," said Chanchanit Hirunpidok, former president of the Thai students association at UCLA, who lobbied UCLA to open a Thai language class but was unsuccessful because of a lack of funds.
This fall, Los Angeles City College has done what UCLA wouldn't.
At the urging of Hirunpidok and other Thais, LACC has created a course in elementary Thai.
More than 50 students enrolled in the five-unit, college-credit course, which meets two nights a week at the college's Vermont Avenue campus. Thai community leaders and college district officials attribute the high turnout to the business community's growing interest in Thailand.
"Everything is global now," said Nancy Poopongpaibul, a Thai stockbroker who is teaching the language class. "People can go and do business in Thailand, and if they can say a few words, it will make people feel more at ease."
Poopongpaibul also said the course is ideal for the children of Thai immigrants who want to learn to read and write in the language of their parents, or for the spouses of Thai people who want to communicate with their in-laws.
Roger Fernandez, chairman of LACC's foreign language department, said he was "amazed at the response" to the first-time offering. He said he hopes the college will be able to offer a more advanced Thai class in the future.
"The demand is tremendous," he said.
The class was conceived about a year ago when district officials who were applying for a grant to bring a professor from Thailand to LACC to teach Thai civilization approached Thai community leaders--including representatives of the Wat Thai Buddhist temple in North Hollywood.
The grant proposal was ultimately rejected, but the Thai leaders urged the district officials to offer a Thai language class anyway. A delegation met with Fernandez, who cited budget limitations as an obstacle. The Wat Thai leaders then offered to provide funds to start the class.
Eventually, though, the district's Department of International Programs agreed to provide seed money for the course, one of six languages added to the college's expanding foreign language department in the past four years.
"It is a recognition that we have a growing Thai community in Los Angeles and that Thailand is increasingly important economically," said Don Culton, director of international programs for the Los Angeles Community College District.
The Thai language is considered, even by many Thais, to be extremely complex and difficult to learn. Linguists classify it as part of the family of languages spoken in Burma, Northern Vietnam and some Chinese provinces. Thai is also influenced by Sanskrit and shares many words with the Indian language.
Hirunpidok said that while she was president of the Thai Society at UCLA, she tried to persuade officials there to offer a Thai class, but she was told that they could not because of budget constraints. She said she is "ecstatic" about the LACC class.
"We finally made it happen," she said. "We have the largest Thai population outside Thailand and yet nothing is known about Thai language, Thai culture."
Poopongpaibul, who was also a member of the community delegation that met with Fernandez, said the class will "help create a better understanding between Thai and the non-Thai. I am very proud."