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When John Lee greets his customers he has three language options to spark up a conversation -- Korean, English or Spanish.
“If you live in L.A., you have to know Spanish,” said Lee, an auto accessories shop owner.
Lee, a native Korean, was raised in Los Angeles where he learned to fit in the presence of the Latino community and eventually picked up Spanish words.
“If it’s around you more, [that is] probably the easiest way to learn a language,” said Kathryn Sorrells, a communications studies professor at California State University, Northridge.
At least 56 percent of L.A. County’s population speaks a language other than English, according to Census data. About 47 percent of the county's total population is Latino.
Lee said understanding and speaking multiple languages as a business owner is a must nowadays. Sorrells said if people are negotiating and accommodating as best as they can, it becomes a successful intercultural exchange.
“If they can understand me and I can understand them, then I feel much more comfortable,” said Carolina Flores, who understands English but prefers to communicate in Spanish. Flores said it’s helpful to speak the language to stay on the same page.
Although Lee’s Spanish is not perfect, he said he gets through conversations with customers. When he gets stuck mid-sentence, they help him out.
“I had been saying ‘recipto’ all this time until a little boy told me that it was ‘recibo,’” Lee recalled.
Lee’s business, Angel’s Electronics, has been operating in Vernon’s El Faro Plaza, a densely Latino-populated shopping center, for about six years. Next to his shop are stores signs in Spanish, banda y corridos music in the background and Mexican food being served -- so the Latino culture is evident.
“Learning the language of any culture is the gateway to any culture. It indicates that you’re trying that you have interest [in their culture],” said Sorrells.