Word Bond : Korean Americans Learning Spanish to Form Latino Links


Each Monday night this summer, a tiny classroom has been packed with Korean American doctors, merchants and other professionals eagerly scribbling down their teacher’s every word.


In Korean, the instructor asks his students to repeat after him.

“Cuanto cuesta,” he says.


The 70 pupils chant in unison.

In Southern California, where Spanish has entered the mainstream, Korean merchants and other business people, including some who cannot speak English, are scrambling to learn the language in an effort to boost business and improve community relations, according to local leaders.

Enrollment for this Spanish-language course, offered at the Korean American Center, is more than double that of the center’s classes in business management, citizenship and even English.

The center offered the course for the first time this year in an effort to boost sagging business in Garden Grove’s Koreatown, which stretches two miles along Garden Grove Boulevard, said Dr. Koo Oh, president of the Orange County Korean American Assn.


“The main problem with Garden Grove Koreatown is mainly that there are only Korean people,” Oh said. “If it continues like this, it’s not going to progress. They should go mainstream. To do that, they should know English and Spanish.”

Becky Esparza, Orange County human relations commissioner, said: “It’s not only business wise, it establishes a bond between a community and the merchants who are willing to learn Spanish. It shows that they care enough to learn the language.”

When Daniel Jeha Lee began teaching the class five weeks ago, he also hoped to offer some insight into the Latino culture from a Korean perspective.

During the seven years he lived in Argentina, he developed a profound respect for that culture, Lee said. When he moved to the United States in 1992, he was saddened to see other Koreans who did not feel the same.


“I feel sorry when Korean people think Spanish people are inferior,” said Lee, 25. “It’s because they don’t understand the culture. I am trying to make a bridge of respect.”

The students in Lee’s class, which meets from 7 to 9 p.m., all speak Korean fluently, but many speak broken English.

“Koreans have a very good heart; they keep trying to learn English, but Spanish comes much easier to them because there are more similarities in pronunciation,” Lee said.

Jia Frydenberg, director of the professional English as a Second Language program at UCI Extension, agreed that “Spanish is a much easier language to learn for Asian people in particular,” she said. “English is so idiosyncratic.”


She added: “If an Asian person learns Spanish, it also helps them to learn English; they complement each other because of the vocabulary and language structure.”

Dr. Kai Lee, 52, a Fountain Valley dentist and one of Lee’s students, is not fluent in English and said he wanted to communicate more with his patients, about 15% of whom are Latino.

“I think (Latinos) feel more comfortable coming to a minority dentist,” Lee said.

Census figures for 1990 show that more than a quarter of the population in Orange County speaks only Spanish at home. Another 10% speak Asian languages, with Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean topping the list.


Hien Phan, director of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, said that Vietnamese business people who want to learn Spanish are likely to take classes taught in English at community colleges or private institutions.

Eunah Hwang, another of Lee’s pupils, is fluent is both Korean and English. But she is familiar with language barriers, which is what prompted her to take the class.

About 45% of the students in her kindergarten class in Long Beach speak only Spanish, she said.

“I feel that I can gain a lot of knowledge and apply it to my students,” said Hwang, 27, who also teaches English at the center.