A new PBS documentary, Speaking in Tongues, follows four students and their families at dual immersion schools in San Francisco. The film offers evidence that the study of math, science and other subjects in more than one language gives students an edge, despite what some disapproving relatives might think.
I heard about this film many months ago. What really intrigued me about it was that the filmmakers — Marcia Jarmel and her husband Ken Schneider — have a big stake in this subject themselves. Ten years ago, they enrolled their older son into a Chinese immersion elementary school. A few years later, they did the same with their other son. It seemed to me that the best way to do a story about the film was to do a story about the Jarmel-Schneider family. So I interviewed them all at their house in the Richmond District of San Francisco (where many local stores are owned by Chinese speakers).
Of the four school students profiled in Speaking in Tongues, one is close in circumstance and motivation to the two Jarmel-Schneider boys. Julian Ennis is a high school sophomore, whose white middle class American parents have no obvious link to China or the Chinese language. Yet their son is taking the highest level of Chinese offered in San Francisco schools. He — and they — are in it for cultural exposure, as global citizens.
Among the the others profiled, Durell Laury is attending a Chinese immersion elementary school. He is the only kid from his housing project going to that school. He mother says learning Chinese is “a way in and a way out.” There’s also Jason Patiño, attending Spanish immersion school. His Mexican parents — who didn’t attend a day of school themselves — listen to other Spanish speaking parents at the school, as they demand more English be spoken. But without the Spanish Jason is learning in class, chances are he’d forget the language of his parents.
Finally there’s Kelly Wong, whose Chinese-American parents speak virtually no Chinese. Kelly is learning both Mandarin and Cantonese. This allows her, among other things, to have a meaningful relationship with her Cantonese-speaking grandmother. There’s one extraordinary scene at a family banquet, at which her great aunt objects to her learning Chinese, while another family member defends the decision to send her to Chinese immersion school. That scene feels like it could one day be America writ large, as migration and globalization bring the world to America, and the idea of bilingualism takes hold — and not just in polyglot places like San Francisco.
Local listings for Speaking in Tongues are here.
Also, I talk with linguist Deborah Fallows on living in China and learning Chinese. In Chinese, she says, rude is polite, and brusque is intimate. This comes out in all kinds of disorienting (no pun intended) ways, but the bottom line is, if people feel close to you in China, they will use a language of intimacy. That’s another way of saying they will dispense with please, thank you and other niceties. Their language is likely to seem harsh and abrupt. Just remember: it’s a compliment! Check out other interviews Fallows did with Time and NPR. Better yet, listen to my interview with her, which is longer, weirder and funnier: we do Chinese names for foreigners, English names for Chinese people, and what happened to the language during the Sichuan earthquake. Here’s her book in the United States and the UK.