Los Angeles is a multilingual metropolis. There are roughly 19 million people in Metro Los Angeles and, according to the late, renowned linguist, Vyacheslav Ivanov, there are at least 224 languages spoken in Los Angeles County. Ivanov also estimated that there are roughly 180 local publications written in languages other than English. Although a less common sight these days, in days past, newspaper boxes filled with editions of La Opinión, Người Việt, 미주한국일보, Ասպարէզ, The Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers were a common sight. If you flip through the AM radio dial or ride a bus on any given day, you’ll definitely hear several languages spoken. Pay attention to the signage at restaurants, mechanics, and houses of worship and you’ll notice a variety of alphabets. While English is the lingua franca of the US, the roots of which lie in a British colony, there is no official language. In Los Angeles, any language other than Chumash is, I suppose, equally “foreign.” If you wish to learn one dialect of Chumashan, there’s the Šmuwič Chumash Language School. If you’d like to learn another language, there are a variety of Saturday schools, cultural centers, university and college courses, and other resources.
Back when I started junior high, the only options were French, German, Spanish, and Latin. I chose — against the advice of worried school officials — to take French and Spanish simultaneously, having looked at a map and noticed that Spanish was widely spoken across Latin America and French across Africa. I also thought, correctly, that it would open up Spanish and French literature, poetry, and film. Later our school added Japanese, I believe. If I could’ve, I’d have happily taken them all in exchange for most other courses. Students in LAUSD have quite a few more options than I did: American Sign, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Russian, and Spanish.
Many Californians are blessed with the command of at least two languages before they enroll in school. California is home to more bilingual and multilingual residents than any other state in the US. Some 45% of Californians speak a language other than English at home. It’s probably safe to say that the majority are immigrants, refugees, or their children. However, California’s linguistic diversity goes back many thousands of years. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, the region already boasted the greatest linguistic diversity in what’s now the US. There were an estimated 300 dialects of some 90 languages spoken by Natives here.
For some 10,000 years, only Chumashan was spoken in what’s now Los Angeles. Around 1500 BCE, the so-called Takic Expansion saw the arrival of the region’s first transplants, the Uto-Aztecan language speakers, including the Tongva and Tataviam, migrated to the region from their homelands in the Sonoran Desert to the east. The Spanish arrived about 3,000 years later, bringing with them Castilian Spanish. Over time, words from Nahuatl, Maya, and other Native languages were incorporated and Castilian words which became archaic in Spain were preserved, resulting in the development of a distinct Mexican Spanish dialect. After Spanish, French was the most-spoken language in 19th century Los Angeles. In the 1860s, though, English overtook Spanish and afterward, Chinese and Japanese became more common. Los Angeles was even home to the largest community of Japanese outside of Japan until the 1920s when decades of violence and anti-Asian legislation slowed immigration from most non-European countries to a trickle.
Immigration limits were loosened in 1968, with the enacting of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Los Angeles’s linguistic diversity began to grow again. Nowadays Los Angeles is home to the country’s largest communities of Burmese, Canadians, Indonesians, Japanese, Laotians, and Mongolians. It’s also home to the largest communities in the world (outside of their respective home countries) of Armenians, Filipinos, Guatemalans, Koreans, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese.
Today, about 60% of Angelenos speak a language other than English and one in three Angelenos was born in another country. The most spoken languages are English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, Armenian, Vietnamese, Farsi, Japanese, Russian, French, Arabic, Mon-Khmer, German, Thai, Italian, and Hebrew. English, to be sure, is the common tongue for most Angelenos but more than half of Guatemalans, Hondurans, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Salvadorans, Koreans, Hmong, Cambodians, Thai, Laotians, and Chinese Angelenos lack English proficiency. I suspect that far fewer Anglo Angelenos, though, have proficiency in any language but English. So, while learning English “opens doors,” so too does learning any language other than one’s own mother tongue.
Given Los Angeles’s almost unparalleled diversity, it’s disheartening how little it’s recognized by the local media. It’s hard not to roll your eyes when, say, a dense, diverse neighborhood like Koreatown, which contains within it Little Bangladesh, is yet again reduced to a listicle of nine gogigui joints and one day spa that’s actually in Westlake. The city isn’t much better. Mass transit announcements and signage are exclusively in English despite the fact that bus and train riders are more likely than the public at large to speak a language other than English and have limited proficiency. Meanwhile, even though road signs are only every in English, DMV materials are in Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese because not being able to read traffic signs shouldn’t be a barrier to car dependency.
Hollywood, as the unofficial booster of the city, is the worst. Were you to form your impressions of Los Angeles solely based upon mainstream films and television, you’d probably come away thinking that 99% of Angelenos speak English and 1% speak Spanish. I’m not sure why Hollywood is so afraid of subtitles. We know from the fact that people are staring at their phones all day that we’re not averse to reading short messages but it’s extremely rare that a Hollywood film is in a language other than English. And so we usually get Latino characters played by Spanish actors speaking English. Any sort of ancient people, extraterrestrial, or fantasy creature, naturally, is usually voiced by a British actor or an American doing their best generic RP accent. A notable exception is Blade Runner, in which many future Angelenos converse in Cityspeak — a creole of Chinese, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, and Spanish. Still, that film came out in 1982 — so long ago, in fact, that its futuristic setting is now three years in the past. And even though I love that film, I doubt that such a multi-linguistic hybrid like Cityspeak is likely to develop. Usually, hybrids that I hear — like Spanglish, Taglish, Konglish, Chinglish, Runglish — all of which are hybrids of English and the speaker’s mother tongue. It’s worth noting, too, that while most cinemas screen mainly English language cinemas, there are also those that specialize in Chinese, Tagalog, Hindi, and Korean films (and in the past, Japanese, Spanish, and Vietnamese).
So… learn another language, or two, or three (or more). And — because Saturday schools don’t promote much outside of the communities that they’re intended to serve — PLEASE let me know of any — or any other language assets to add to the map. Thanks, chido, salamat, 谢谢, &c.