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Los Angeles: A Multilingual City - 2001-08-22

Los Angeles attracts immigrants from around the world, and it is one of the world's most multilingual cities. The diversity of languages presents residents with special challenges, and opportunities to learn about other cultures.

Forty percent of the people of Los Angeles speak a language other than English in their homes. Because of the large number of immigrants from Latin America, the most commonly spoken language, after English, is Spanish. That is good for Oscar Zenteno, who moved here from Spain 20 years ago. Mr. Zenteno operates a hair styling salon and says that using Spanish and English, he can communicate with all of his customers. "No problem," he says. "It's a very, very important in Los Angeles, I think, to speak both languages, to be bilingual."

More than three-quarters of the people of the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park are Asian or Asian American. Signs posted outside most businesses are in Chinese or Vietnamese. Patrons at one crowded restaurant wait for their number to be called before they are escorted to their table. The numbers are read in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

Los Angeles resident Xiaohong Lu comes from Shanghai, China, and speaks Mandarin Chinese as well as her local dialect of Shanghainese. While living in Japan, she also learned Japanese. She uses her Asian language skills in her work selling airplane parts to Chinese and Japanese customers, through their U.S. offices. "Of course, they all speak English," she says, "but when they use their own language to talk to me, I can understand them better. Also, they consider me like one of them, which makes the work relationship better."

One third of the people of Glendale, another Los Angeles suburb, are ethnic Armenians. For Ajikuhy Sarkavagyan, an Armenian immigrant who is now a postal worker, the use of her native language helps her communicate with some of her customers. "If they don't speak English, I use Armenian," she says.

Another postal worker, Bobby Brown, was born in the United States but has learned some Armenian from customers on his route. "I've been here in Glendale for almost 18 years, and back in the mid-1980s, the Armenians that were here didn't speak hardly any English," Mr. Brown says. We had tons of special delivery letters for the Armenian community and it was just a big language barrier. And it's really kind of a complicated language, but the stuff that I use all the time, I remember."

Los Angeles school officials say that more than 80 languages are spoken in local schools, including commonly spoken languages like Spanish and Korean and less common ones like Urdu and Punjabi. A special translation unit helps school officials communicate with parents. Klieber Palma, the unit's director, says the task is difficult.

"There's always a wrinkle in any request," he says "whether it be in translation or interpretation, whether it be because terms don't exist in the other languages or because the [school] district lingo is so special to this area or this district, such as educational terms." Mr. Palma notes that even abbreviations and acronyms used in Los Angeles schools sometimes need translation into English.

Glendale postal worker Bobby Brown says language skills are important to residents of Los Angeles, and his language skills have helped him in his work and social life. "I have to know a little bit of, I guess, about five different languages just to get by here in Glendale," he says. "Just a little bit. I know a little bit of a few. I can talk to the girls, mainly, all the important things."

Mr. Brown jokes that his language skills have allowed him to make new friends and resulted in gifts of Armenian pastries from his customers.