Southland Struggles to Cope With Immigrants and Their Languages

From Associated Press

Mayor Tom Bradley proudly calls Los Angeles “the new Ellis Island,” where waves of immigrants have produced amazing cultural diversity.

But increasingly schools, courts and businesses throughout Southern California are struggling to cope with scores of languages that threaten to create a metropolitan Babel.

Examples abound:

- The Los Angeles Unified School District tries to teach most courses in the students’ native languages until they develop fluency in English. The task is monumental: 160,000 students have as their primary tongues more than 80 languages, from Persian, Afrikaans and Amharic to Urdu, Yoruba and Yiddish.


- During last year’s fire in the city’s tallest skyscraper, emergency announcements were in English and largely useless. Nearly all the 50 people in the building that night were janitors who spoke only Spanish.

- In Orange County, commonly associated with surfers and Disneyland, minorities make up more than 40% of public school students, and a recent poll found the 100,000 Vietnamese residents feel their top need is English-language classes.

Police in the Orange County cities of Westminster and Garden Grove have recruited Vietnamese speakers to investigate tight-knit Asian gangs. The Santa Ana school district had to turn away about half the 800 Spanish speakers who waited in line, some overnight, to sign up for English courses.

- Tens of thousands of Soviet-Armenians and Jews have poured into the area in recent years as the Soviet Union relaxed emigration policies. Overwhelmed social workers say the refugees must be educated quickly or risk becoming permanently dependent on the government.


The number of refugees streaming into Los Angeles County from around the world has tripled since 1985, reaching a high of 19,011 in 1988. But federal funds to help the newcomers dropped from $7.1 million in 1985 to $2.8 million last year.

- In Glendale, for decades another white suburban bastion, a survey last spring found that 54.5% of the students in city schools came from homes where English was not the primary language. More than 60 languages were spoken.

On rare occasions, the problems can be comical. Glendale teacher Matilda Mardirossian was glad that Michael S. Dukakis lost the presidential election, not because of politics but because of his name, which is pronounced the same as an off-color phrase in Armenian, the first language spoken by many of her students.

“They were giggling over his name,” she said. “I definitely didn’t want to hear it for the next four years.”

Most skirmishes in the war of words are more serious.

Company Backs Down

Last month, Executive Life Insurance Co. dropped an English-only rule for employees rather than fight a civil rights suit filed by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California.

“Los Angeles, and California as a state, are at a turning point, as far as being a global center of many cultures,” said Stewart Kwoh, the founder of the legal center. “And while English is the principal language through which we converse, it is not going to be possible for us to play a leadership role if we cannot accept other languages and cultures.”


But acceptance can come slowly in cities like Monterey Park, 10 miles east of downtown. The city of 62,000 became known as the “first suburban Chinatown” or the “Chinese Beverly Hills” as Asians, many of them affluent, supplanted Anglos and Latinos as the majority group.

Most signs along the Atlantic Boulevard business strip are now in Chinese as well as English, with Ai Hoa Supermarket and Bank of Canton of California competing for attention with Security Pacific Bank and Pic ‘n’ Save. Chinese-language newspapers outnumber English papers in the sidewalk news racks.

Mayor Carries on Campaign

Monterey Park Mayor Barry L. Hatch has loudly called for a ban on immigration into the United States, supports a law making English the official U.S. language, and crusades against non-English books at the library.

“Monterey Park is a beautiful little suburban town, almost rural in some parts. And now we drive through our little commercial area and feel like we’re in Hong Kong,” he said. “When you’re an Anglo or Hispanic and you can’t read the signs, it makes you feel like a second-class citizen.”

Other nearby cities have reacted with laws dictating how much English must appear on signs: Temple City (100% in English downtown, 50% in outlying areas), Arcadia (70%), Pomona and Rosemead (50%).

“Historically, immigrants have come to America with the understanding they’re going to have to give up their primary language,” Hatch said. “Now we’re looking at floods of immigrants who say to hell with the process--we’ll do it our way.”

Inevitably, disputes wind up in court.


One lawsuit that failed in state court in 1987 wanted the Los Angeles School District to immediately provide English classes to 40,000 foreign language speakers, despite the fact that 200,000 people already were enrolled in such classes and the district said state funds for them had run out.

Issue of Interpreters

A suit pending in federal court contends aliens are deprived of their rights in Southern California immigration courts by inept interpreters and a practice of translating only parts of deportation hearings.

Seven people worked as translators for Los Angeles County courts in 1962. Today 453 do, interpreting 70 languages and dialects, with 257 Spanish translators by far the most numerous.

Ed Johnson, director of interpreter-translator services, said about 300 interpreters work in the county’s municipal and superior courts on a typical day. The 1962 translation budget was about $30,000, he said; this year’s is about $6 million.

Sophia Zahler, who heads the federal court translation service here, said Spanish speakers account for 95% of interpreters used in federal courts nationwide. But in California, the “other” category jumps to 20%, with demand for Korean, Tagalog, Thai, Armenian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Farsi, Hebrew and even Tongan.

Some profit by the linguistic gridlock, such as accent-reduction teachers who charge $60 to $85 a session for a dozen individual sessions. There are hundreds of takers.

Others see benefits in language differences.

Spanish Comes First

At Edison Elementary School in a Latino section of Santa Monica, kindergarten and first-grade pupils are taught in Spanish except for one oral English class, regardless of whether students’ parents speak English or Spanish. English-language classes are gradually added, working up to a 50-50 language mix in sixth grade.

“The Edison School project assumes that both Hispanics and Anglos will emerge competent in both languages,” said Russell N. Campbell, a UCLA linguistics professor.

Similar programs may be set up in Koreatown, Little Tokyo or Chinatown, but Campbell acknowledged they will remain special.

“It just isn’t possible in a class where a teacher is facing 15 kids who speak different languages,” he said. “And what do we do about those classes with the single kid who speaks Lao or Hmong?”