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HEARTS of the CITY | Navigating the Real World

A rotating panel of experts from the worlds of philosophy, psychology and religion offer their perspective on the dilemmas that come with living in Southern California.

May 01, 1996

Today's question: An estimated 500,000 people in Los Angeles do not speak English. Native English speakers often complain about the inconvenience of having to deal with people whose English is inadequate or who have accents. That is particularly true in such public offices as City Hall, which are sometimes staffed by employees with strong accents. How does one cultivate a more tolerant attitude toward people whose English skills are limited?

Father John P. Daly

Director, Center for Asian Business, Loyola Marymount University

Sometimes native speakers of English tend to equate good English speaking skills with intelligence. If one doesn't speak properly, one is therefore dumb! After spending 20 years in Asia as an an English teacher, one lesson I learned the first month was that the intelligence of speakers of English as a second language is not directly related to their ability in English. The simple rule for communicating with persons with limited English skills is to listen to what they are saying and not how they are saying it. In Los Angeles particularly, the city of many cultures and languages, we need to call upon our imagination to discern what is being said rather than impatiently asking others to repeat.

Sharon Presley

Executive director, Resources for Independent Thinking, Oakland

Taxpayers have every right to expect adequate service from City Hall. But if people whose English is difficult to understand are answering phones, it's not their fault, it's the bureaucrats who hired them. Be tolerant of the employees because they're struggling to survive like the rest of us. Be intolerant of bureaucrats who don't care if taxpayers are inconvenienced. Remember most of our forebears were once immigrants, too, looking for a better life just like these employees. Imagine yourself in a non English-speaking country in the same situation. How would you want to be treated? With patience and understanding, not anger. Gently ask them to speak more slowly, if necessary, but always apply the Golden Rule.

The Rev. Tom Choi

Pastor, Ascension-English Ministry, Los Angeles Korean United Methodist Church

When hearing someone use accented English, our tendency is to regard the speaker as foreign, different, even ignorant, and many will dehumanize that person. If that person represents a public institution such as City Hall, the tendency to dehumanize is even greater. Once we dehumanize another, our patience, tolerance and respect erodes into frustration, anger and resentment. The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all are made in the image of God. This understanding that others are of sacred worth--no matter who they are or how they speak--is essential in a community as diverse as Los Angeles, and is the only way we will be able to live harmoniously with each other.

Compiled by K. CONNIE KANG / Times staff writer

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