IT'S as if the boundaries of the United Nations had suddenly expanded to include all of New York City. The babble of foreign languages on the streets and in coffee shops is so pervasive that the English-speaker often feels like the foreigner. A full one-third of all New Yorkers - up from one-fourth 10 years ago - are now foreign-born. The faces change. Over the last 25 years the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia have largely replaced the nations of Europe as points of origin, but New York City remains the destination of choice for one of every six immigrants to the United States.
Hispanics account for the largest numerical increase. Greater New York now has the second-largest Hispanic community in the US, after southern California.
New York is one of the few Frost-Belt cities to actually grow during the 1980s, rising from about 7 million to 7.3 million people, according to preliminary 1990 census figures. The new immigrants, arriving at a rate of roughly 90,000 a year, are considered a major factor. Many move into housing and jobs vacated by earlier immigrants, who have been moving steadily to the suburbs for the last two decades.
Some of the newcomers find the American Dream lives up to its promise. Most find making a life here much tougher than they were led to believe by television and word-of-mouth success stories. Many take menial jobs and work long hours just to survive.
In addition to enriching the culture - in everything from cuisine to music - the new immigrants have had a powerful and largely positive economic and social impact on the city.
"Immigrants have been crucial in revitalizing and stabilizing many New York neighborhoods," says Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center.
The influence on New York politics usually lags a generation behind each new wave of arrivals. Yet neighborhood ethnicity is playing a major role in the redrawing of City Council districts now under way.
When the Soviets crack down on Armenians or cyclones batter Bangladesh, a sympathetic community of immigrants in the US now invariably sends up a cry of concern. Congress and US foreign policymakers listen.
"The newcomers are a much more diverse group than has come to New York at any other period of our history ... and it's changing our awareness of the rest of the world," notes Carol Stix, a professor of sociology at Pace University. "Taking a page from the civil rights movement, they recognize that they have to speak up and organize to be heard and have their needs met."
New York City schools face one of the strongest challenges posed by the new immigrants. On the enrichment side, teachers are being retrained and given new materials on the theory that every subject at every grade level should note contributions made to it by a variety of cultures; it's termed multicultural education.
Yet the English language gap remains a persistent problem for the schools. Currently, some 110,246 children - more than one of every nine in the school system - have only limited English proficiency.
"That's a sizable proportion," notes David Reimers, a New York University history professor who is writing a book on the city's ethnic history. He says that most of the students having trouble are Hispanic. "It's a culture in which English is not spoken that much."
By contrast, he notes, English is widely spoken for historic reasons in a number of Asian nations such as the Philippines and India.
The New York school system response is often to combine bilingual education, when teachers are available and low test scores indicate a need, with the English immersion approach of English-as-a-second-language (ESL).
Students with very limited English ability are often taught history, math, and science for a time in their own language in addition to their English language training. As Bob Terte, a spokesman for the city school system explains: "The purpose is to make the kids competent in English as soon as possible and also give instruction in the native language so they don't fall behind."
Yet those speaking less common languages, such as Urdu and Bengali, often must make do with ESL training only. Not knowing in advance which groups to expect - children of Soviet refugees are the largest group of new students this year - and the high mobility rate of many immigrant families changing neighborhoods complicate the schools' job.
In some ways the toughest challenge for New Yorkers already here is cultural and social. Friction as new groups move in, nudging and sometimes displacing those already there, is as old a pattern as immigration itself.
Recent incidents in both New York and Washington, D.C., stand as sharp reminders of the need for increased sensitivity to cultural differences.
*-When a Washington policewoman shot at a man resisting arrest for public drunkenness a few weeks ago, the response of Hispanics in his Mt. Pleasant neighborhood was fiery and defensive. They charged that local officials, who are predominantly black, discriminate against them.
* The boycott by blacks last year in Brooklyn's Flatbush section of a grocery owned by a Korean immigrant is another case in point. A shopper born in Haiti insisted she was assaulted without provocation in January 1990 by the owner. The owner, who says the woman did not pay for all her purchases, has been acquitted of the charges against him but now faces a new $6 million damage suit filed by the woman.
Often there is a strong economic undercurrent to such friction. Many blacks, for instance, say they, rather than any immigrants, should reap the job and spending benefits in "their" neighborhoods. Yet cultural differences also play a strong and largely unrecognized role. The common Asian tendency to avoid looking anyone directly in the eye and the lack of a welcoming smile or small talk is sometimes interpreted as rudeness or arrogance. Some Asians try to mask their inability to speak English well.
Many immigrants have been criticized for not making stronger efforts to learn English. Many work such long hours that they have little time. Also, public funding for ESL programs is sharply down. "I don't think New York City and the suburban areas have more than 100,000 slots for this kind of thing - the problem grows more serious every year," says Regina Armstrong of the Regional Plan Association.
"We have a long waiting list," notes Linda Morona, an assistant with ESL programs at New York's McBurney YMCA.
One way in which the New York City Police Department has tried to increase cultural sensitivity is by assigning officers, where possible, to neighborhoods where their own ethnic or racial backgrounds may help. "I think it's been one of the more effective safety valves," observes James Shenton, a Columbia University history professor who specializes in New York City issues.