Tuesday, September 27, 2005

English bypassed in Los Angeles - Koreans learning Spanish

Rachel Uranga:

Peruvian immigrant Miguel Aliaga always knew that coming to Los Angeles would mean a long struggle mastering a new language. He just never figured that language would be Korean.

In a city that lures some of the world's poorest, brightest and most ambitious immigrants, a strange phenomenon is occurring.

Clusters of immigrants are learning that America is not as much about assimilating into an English-speaking world but into a diverse immigrant culture, where Koreans can speak Spanish - and vice versa.

"At the beginning, English was very important - and it still is, if I need to go to a government office or court or get a license," Aliaga, 32, said as he sat behind a small display case in his soccer-supply shop in Koreatown.

"For me, (learning Korean) is as important because I lived in Koreatown. Now I am able to communicate with Koreans."

While no agency officially tracks the phenomenon, groups working in immigrant communities around Los Angeles can point to a handful of foreigners who assimilate by learning the dominant language - and sometimes it isn't English.

Latinos working in Chinese restaurants learn Mandarin. Koreans running manufacturing warehouses speak Spanish.

"It's a multicultural society and part of multiculturalism is multilingualism," said Ali Modarres, associate director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

"It's beginning to show up in more neighborhoods as they become dominated by languages other than English."

But the phenomenon is more market-driven than cultural. The fortress of language is not crossed for love and friendship - but for commerce.

"To an outside person, it looks like something nice. There's an ethnic exchange going on. But the reality is that it's an exchange of necessity," said Vy Nguyen, a lead organizer for the Korean Immigrant Worker's Advocate, who works with dozens of bilingual and trilingual immigrants and speaks three languages herself - English, Spanish and Korean.

"You would think that an immigrant coming to the U.S. would have to learn (English). The reality is that Los Angeles is very ethnically diverse. In many businesses that immigrants are working in the primary language spoken there isn't English."

Aliaga, who for years stocked shelves at Korean-owned grocery stores, initially took Korean-language classes at night school to get ahead and earn a pay raise. Most of his customers spoke little or no English, and he wanted to be one of the few Spanish-speaking employees who could help customers find just the right fish or direct them to canned vegetables.

So, like thousands before him, he studied the language that would provide him with the most economic opportunity. And it happened to be Korean.

"At first it was about a job. When you understand Korean, there are more people that will hire you, especially in restaurants," he said.

Now it's about culture.

On his desk, he keeps a Korean-language instruction book and a Korean-English dictionary that he reads while waiting for customers.

"It has influenced me. Koreans are so disciplined, if they say they are going to do something. I do the same," he said.

In some ways, it's no wonder Aliaga is so enamored of Korean culture. It's the closest immigrant culture to him other than his own. The Korean woman who owns the store next door runs a tab for him, and - like him - works in her shop from morning till night. He knows all the store owners around his own by name. Most speak only Korean.

So on his downtime, Aliaga studies Korean history. Last year, he visited South Korea for a soccer convention. And he's now pulling together a plan to export the stacks of soccer jerseys.

Across the county - where a third of the residents are immigrants and nearly 100 languages are spoken - these cultural exchanges occur in small ways every day.

A Korean immigrant - by way of Argentina - Martin Paik writes a column, "Hola Amigo," in the Korea Times that provides conversational Spanish lessons in Korean. He doesn't speak English and finds little reason to, living in Los Angeles.

"In California, Spanish is more important than English," said Paik, a Seoul native. "I haven't found any inconvenience because I don't speak English. ... I don't need to speak English. If you can speak Spanish, you can drive, employers can have clients, you can order in restaurants, you can do anything."

Paik receives his credit card bills in Spanish and orders his office supplies in Korean. He teaches Spanish in Korean at a school he runs in a largely Latino neighborhood near Koreatown.

Most of the 200 students at Martin Spanish School speak little or no English. The only hint of English in the instruction books - which he wrote himself - are on the cover page.

"These students have to learn Spanish because here, it is indispensable. So many people speak Spanish here," he said. "These are people that work in check-cashing stores, Laundromats, cleaning businesses and at medical facilities."

Paik admits he often gets funny looks from Spanish speakers who at first glance are surprised by his fluency. But once the tongue starts wagging, Latinos - especially immigrants - quickly let down their guard. They are accustomed to seeing Asians in their homelands. Mexico City boasts a robust Chinatown and Argentina is home to thousands of South Korean immigrants.

"We are similar in many ways," Paik says with a grin. "We are dignified. We are proud."

Yoon Seong, a 60-year-old Korean - by way of Spain - said he feels fortunate to know Spanish. He lives in West Hills and said, unlike many of his Korean friends, feels no need to move to Koreatown.

"For me being here, the Hispanic community is the only world for me. I don't need English here. All that you need in California is Spanish."

The transformation of California into Mexifornia continues.

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3 Comments:

At 12:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"All that you need in California is Spanish."

Uhh, wrong. Unless you want to ghetto-ize yourself, that is, or are already independently wealthy. Try getting (almost) any kind of decent job without being able to speak English. A perfect example of how the desire to appear ever so tolerant and politically correct in a multicultural-diversity sense can induce people to completely abandon common sense and say absolutely the stupidest things.

"they aren't prepared to be Americans"

Of course most of them aren't interested in that at all; what they are interested in is the greater material standard of living and economic opportunity they can enjoy here, thanks to the work of previous generations of (real) Americans.

 
At 12:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops -- the last quote and my comment about it came from another site, and not from the original article.

But it's still relevant.

 
At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try getting (almost) any kind of decent job without being able to speak English

Unfortunately, a lot of jobs - particularly government ones - want applicants to know some Spanish.

 

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