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COVER STORY : It's All Spoken Here : The Debate Over Language Grows Intense as Cities Like L.A. Become More Diverse. English-Only Advocates Warn of 'Linguistic Apartheid.'

April 18, 1993|DIANE SEO | 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

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."

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