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New Voice for O.C. Immigrants

Language: From outreach programs to student translators, new arrivals are learning English.

January 23, 2000|MATTHEW EBNET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

English is so dominant in Orange County that immigrants are forced to shed their native tongues more quickly than in Los Angeles, say many who help new residents cope in a new land.

"There is much . . . more pressure in Orange County to speak English quickly," said Nhi Ho, an Asian outreach specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Yet Orange County, once known as a suburban refuge for native-born Americans, is growing more diverse, and the problems faced by public-safety and school workers in Los Angeles are becoming more common.

Census experts say the number of languages spoken in Orange County tops 100 and is growing.

The greatest concentrations of non-English-speaking students in public schools are Vietnamese-speakers in Westminster and Garden Grove and Farsi-speakers from families of Iranian immigrants near Irvine. The Garden Grove Unified School District alone must cope with 65 languages, from Romanche (a Swiss dialect) to Urdu and Turkish.

Language differences take their toll, said Westminster Police Capt. Andy Hall, the department's unofficial ambassador to the Vietnamese community.

"Day in and day out we are finding there is a disadvantage" for non-English speakers, Hall said. "During a routine accident, maybe the officer doesn't take that extra minute to flesh out that extra bit of information from a [non-English speaker]. There is no intentional bias there. But 2,000 accident reports later, it adds up to a bias."

Officials at Top of the World School in Laguna Beach tell a story that illustrates both the pressure to learn English and the increasing diversity of Orange County: When Cornelia Larek, newly adopted by American parents, arrived for kindergarten in the fall of 1998, she spoke only Romanian.

With butternut-brown hair the color of her eyes, and cheeks so red that they amplified her expressions enough that teachers could read her face even from far away, the girl was very much alone.

"When she came here," said Dolores Marshall, the language development aide at the Top of the World School, "she had to fend for herself."

Now flourishing in first grade, Cornelia, 7, is no longer isolated. Teachers credit another student for helping her: Second-grader Michael Necula, whose Romanian parents insisted over his protests that he speak Romanian at home, became Cornelia's translator and teacher.

"He was older than her. He was telling her what to do. She was not very affectionate with him at first," said Marshall. "But one day I saw them laughing. Just laughing . . . He was teaching her 'cat.' She acted like a cat and made a cat sound. And I thought, 'This is going to work.' "

Local school districts, hospitals, police departments and other public agencies are stepping up efforts to bridge language gaps by offering outreach programs, creating English testing centers and hiring bilingual speakers.

Santa Ana Police Department policy, for example, requires new employees to speak two languages; officers rely on a Sacramento-based emergency translation service for help with languages they can't handle.

At the Westminster school district, officials recently purchased 50 headsets that parents and students can wear at school meetings; translators speak into the headsets.

The Garden Grove school district maintains a center of five portable buildings staffed by translators that serves as a first stop for non-English speakers in that city.

Cuong Vu, a translator at the Assessment and Registration Center, says the center offers a respite from the fear and isolation that many non-English speakers feel when they arrive in the United States. "We look at their faces, and make them feel comfortable," he said.

But as Orange County becomes more diverse, making people feel comfortable will become more difficult, Vu said.

There is no countywide system to call on when agencies are faced with a remote language. "We try our best to find somebody to translate," no matter how rare the language, he said, "[but] sometimes we cannot."

On other occasions, he said, new arrivals count on family members who may speak a little English. Beyond that, they rely on luck.

Said Myrna Heitel, Cornelia Larek's kindergarten teacher last year: "I talked to Cornelia with my hands. I don't know what we would have done without Michael Necula."

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