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Lost in Translation? It's the L.A. WaySigns like the one above illustrate the rich diversity of languages in L.A. (Photo for UCLA Today courtesy of Andrew Wood)

Lost in Translation? It's the L.A. Way

Three students, under the aegis of the Center for World Languages, part of the International Institute, launched a monthly online journal that celebrates L.A. and its astonishing linguistic diversity.

I still have ties to my heritage, but I also feel like L.A. is my town.

This article was first published in UCLA Today.

By Cynthia Lee

With more than 54% of Angelenos speaking a language other than English at home, Los Angeles is a modern-day Babel, where a profusion of more than 100 languages flows fluidly across neighborhood boundaries and zip codes.

In Chinatown, you see signs in Spanish as well as English and Vietnamese. In Glendale, the din of public conversation can turn instantly from English to Armenian. In Long Beach, you might be surprised to hear … Dutch?

In this multilingual metropolis, immigrant families strive to simultaneously communicate in an English-dominant society and still retain the language of their homeland. It's a city where biracial marriages prove challenging to communication between offspring and their grandparents.

To tell these stories, three students, under the aegis of the Center for World Languages, part of the International Institute, launched a monthly online journal Feb. 1 that celebrates L.A. and its astonishing linguistic diversity.

In "LA Language World: a Global City Speaks," readers meet a couple who came to Los Angeles from Armenia six years ago. While they can barely speak English, their 4-year-old daughter prefers it, to their dismay. Her sentences are in English, with only a sprinkling of Armenian words.

"Her parents cannot understand why this has happened," said Margarita Hirapetian, a fourth-year English major who speaks Armenian and Russian and wrote about the family's linguistic struggle.

In "Love's Labors Considered," UCLA alumna Julia Robinson Shimizu writes about her and her son's struggle to speak Japanese, the native language of her husband, Ichiro. "As a family, we have done our best to communicate in Japanese — to respect Ichiro's language and culture and to align with the bicultural compass of our lives," Shimizu writes. "When our small family sits down to dinner, and our son relates an adventure or opinion in his halting Japanese, I often nod or disagree and interject my own opinions while Ichiro sits back and scratches his head, utterly unable to understand our truncated Japanese jibberish."

"Every story we write has two elements in common — Los Angeles and language," said Kevin Matthews, senior writer for the International Institute and the journal's editor, who came up with an idea for a linguistic journal last October. Then Susan Bauckus, staff researcher for the Center for World Languages, suggested: Why not look at language — the way people learn it and use it — from a human interest perspective?

To unearth these stories, the three students, who learned to speak their parents' native language while growing up at home, came forward without promise of class credit, only a desire to reveal this oft-overlooked aspect of L.A.

"I still have ties to my heritage, but I also feel like L.A. is my town," said Hirapetian. "I want to tell these stories about all the different people and cultures that are here" because of "what has happened to me personally."

Stephanie Tavitian, a third-year international development studies major, was raised by an Arab-Armenian father and Salvadoran mother. While she speaks fluent Spanish, she has experience in and out of the classroom with Armenian, Arabic and Japanese.

Tavitian sat in on a class at El Sereno Middle School in East Los Angeles to watch a teacher help students who speak Chicano-English learn standard English.

Her story opens a window on LAUSD's Academic English Mastery Program that helps youngsters who speak non-standard English succeed academically without demeaning their language.

Senior April Girouard, who grew up learning French and Dutch, takes a look at a linguistics mystery: Why do Hollywood celebs give their offspring such other-worldy monikers as Moxie Crime Fighter and Audio Science?

Read all about it in LA Language World. Visit www.lalamag.ucla.edu.

Center for World Languages