Speaking in Tongues – Award-Winning Documentary

“Speaking in Tongues” is an award-winning documentary that documents the journey of four children on their quest to become bilingual. Jason is a first-generation Mexican American whose family embraces bilingualism as the key to full participation in the land of opportunity. Durrell is an African American kindergartner whose mother hopes that learning Mandarin will be a way out of economic uncertainty and into possibility. Kelly is a Chinese-American recapturing the Cantonese her parents sacrificed to become American. And Julian is a Caucasian eighth grader eager to expand his horizons and become a good world citizen.

The film begins with an ordinary first day of public school kindergarten– except that the teacher speaks only Chinese. Most of her primarily White and Asian American students look confused but curious; a few nod accordingly. They are all in a language immersion class, where, from day one, they will receive 90% of their instruction in Cantonese. Remarkably, their school will test first in English and math among their district’s 76 elementary schools.

While the kids grow in ease and skill with their second tnogue, the grownups argue about the issues surrounding bilingual language education, citing tax burdens, but Durrell’s uncle praises bilingualism, citing the needs of the global economy. Jason becomes the first in his family to read, write, and graduate elementary school; however, at a school enrollment fair, a Latino father asks where his daughter can learn more English. At another school meeting, an angry Chinese dad says, “We are in America! We need English!”

 The heated debate over bilingual education usually takes place in courtrooms, at academic conferences and in editorial missives. At its most vitriolic the “English only” camp skews toward xenophobia and racism, while the opposition at times sounds utopian themes of American global economic resurgence with the aid of multilingual classrooms. Often neglected in this discourse is the firsthand experience of students, an oversight that veteran documentarians Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider beautifully rectify with their latest effort. Closely following four very different local public-schoolers through an academic year, they draw on subtle nuances of the kids’ stories to illustrate the complex shades and permutations of bilingual schooling.
Two children are placed in immersion programs to retain their native tongues while learning English, and the other two are in the reverse situation. Their parents list both familiar and surprising reasons for enrolling their children, but each remains a strong proponent of the programs despite criticism from extended family, friends and a loud chorus of English-only activists. Even while dismissing common barbs, the families must confront unique challenges both humorous and serious. With San Francisco becoming the first city to mandate access to bilingual opportunities for all public schoolchildren, this thought-provoking documentary could hardly be timelier.   




SPEAKING IN TONGUES TRAILER from PatchWorks Films on Vimeo.

Ilya Tovbis
San Francisco International Film Festival