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A spreading Web of language help

Children of immigrants who want to master their ancestral tongues are finding like-minded practice partners through the Internet.

July 13, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim

The group was discussing Britney Spears and everyone wanted to know the same thing: How do you say "paparazzi" in Gujarati?

They settled on the term phota levavara, or photo takers.

"I figured that to bring Gujarati into my everyday life, it would have to fit the things that I do," like discussing pop culture with friends, said Chitavan Patel, who founded the Gujarati language group two years ago on meetup.com.

Patel, 28, said she formed the Los Angeles group to combat an ever-weakening hold on her native language. Born to Indian parents, she grew up in New Jersey speaking the language at home. But after she left for college, she found herself forgetting words, making grammatical mistakes and fumbling to express emotions.

"I didn't want to be the one to break the link in the language and [not] pass it on to my children," Patel said.

So the Santa Monica resident began seeking out language partners. She found others like herself.

Children of immigrants and expatriates are increasingly turning to online groups and websites to connect with each other and to reconnect with their native languages. They are discovering that it not only is a good way to hold onto an important part of their culture but that it can also give them an advantage in the global marketplace.

On Meetup.com's website, hundreds of language groups can be found in metropolitan areas across the country from West Coast to East Coast. Still more can be found on Yahoo, Google and Craigslist. Some people post ads seeking language partners.

With almost 100 members, Patel's Gujarati group has met regularly for two years. Members share similar reasons for joining the group.

"It opens the door to culture," said Patel, who is a financial planner and analyst for HBO. "Gujarati has a lot of idioms that are really quirky and funny; and if you didn't understand the nuances of the language, then you would miss a lot of that stuff, a lot of the color."

There is little data on heritage language trends and even less on online usage, but experts say there are more options available than in the past.

It used to be that maintaining one's native language in this country was discouraged. Further helping to sever linguistic ties, newly arriving immigrants in the U.S. had little contact with family back home, said Olga Kagan, executive director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. The center develops curricula and teacher education for language students.

"Even if you don't travel [home], you can call, you can Skype, you can e-mail, Twitter," she said. "I think it's something that happens at 18, 19, because you realize that you've lost something . . . and you want to regain it."

Peter Eugene Kim, 25, recalled that as a child he loathed spending Saturdays at Korean school in Orange County. But on a recent trip to South Korea, he realized he couldn't connect with people as well as he would have liked. So he recently posted an ad on Craigslist: "I'm looking for a Korean language exchange partner. I can speak intermediate Korean, but would like to become a fluent speaker."

Kim meets occasionally with two language partners for coffee and casual conversation. He brings a notebook in which he jots down Korean words he doesn't know.

"We're talking about each other and ourselves, all those conversations that normal people have when they're getting to know each other," he said.

For Kim, improving his language skill also has professional benefits in his job as an attorney with a nonprofit that helps poor and immigrant families.

"I feel bad when people turn to me and say, 'Hey, you speak Korean?' and I have to say, 'Well, sort of,' and I have to stumble through a meeting," he said.

Job seekers often use a second language to distinguish themselves from other applicants, and employers are increasingly advertising for jobs that require a second language, said Michael Erwin, a senior career advisor at Careerbuilder.com.

"A lot of businesses now are having to do business with countries outside the U.S. because of the economy," he said. "And having a [second] language will put you on the top of the list."

Yun Cho, 41, sought out Korean conversation after she decided to start a Korean summer college program for American students. She had moved to the U.S. from Seoul when she was 3 years old and speaks a little conversational Korean.

Although motivated by her business idea, she said, "The bigger picture is to have a better sense of being." Months ago her 14-year-old son asked her about the Korean War, but Cho didn't know much.

"As more and more questions came at me," she wrote in an e-mail, "the stock answer, 'I don't know' and my son's response, 'Don't you know anything about the place where you were born?,' made me feel personally inadequate."

About four years ago, Umberto Ciccone, 50, began taking Italian classes at UCLA Extension when a classmate told him about an online Italian group, which he now leads.

"To really become fluent, it's hard if you only go to class," he said. "I wanted to meet other people who were trying to do the same thing as me."

When Ciccone was growing up, his Italian parents would allow him to speak only English. But after his parents died, he yearned to connect with relatives in Italy.

"I want to feel like I can communicate with everybody," he said, "not just the ones who can speak English."

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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