Speaking in Tongues and Dreaming in Chinese

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.


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7 responses to “Speaking in Tongues and Dreaming in Chinese

  1. Patricia Frevert

    I love the podcast. One problem though: the archives in ITunes are numbered in the opposite order of the numbers you use when you refer to them in the podcast, which makes them hard to find. Any chance that can be fixed?

    • patricox

      Patricia, Sorry about that. I’ll pass on your concern to iTunes, though I fear that iTunes has its reasons for doing things that way. For my part, I do need to name the podcast in ascending chronological order. I think it would create more confusion if I started with say, #999 and worked my way down from there.

  2. James and Deb Fallows entered China for the Universala Kongreso de Esperanto, with several thousand participants. I wish to thank Patrick Cox for covering Esperanto in the recent past. James and Deb Fallows relationship to Esperanto should not be overlooked.

  3. franchesca leonardo

    American students are now learning to speak a second language because of several reasons. Children are enjoying to learn second language for their own reason but most of the time it’s the choice of the parents whether they going to send their child into a school to learn a second language. Kelly Wong is a good example of a child send by her parents to learn Chinese as a second language. Kelly Wong is a second generation of a Chinese American family. Her grandparents can speak Chinese but her parents lost the language. That is why her parents decided that Kelly will learn the language that her grandparents speak because if Kelly will not learn the language their family might also lose the culture and tradition. But Kelly’s aunt disagree with this idea she think that, learning other language take student from other curricula activities and it’s not appropriate to speak other language in America because it’s an English speaking country and people must speak only English. Kelly’s aunt point of view can be true but learning a second language can help the child to gather more knowledge and it will be useful when traveling in other countries.

  4. Patch McLaughlin

    My name is Patch and I am part of an Intercultural Communications class at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. First off I really enjoyed this podcast. As I was listening to it I found myself thinking how much I wished my parents had sent me to a school like this. But the more I thought about it I realized that there is no way I would have learned a single thing. I would still be in the third grade.

    Do kids with multiple languages under their belt have an edge on others that don’t? Absolutely. That is all the more reason why school like the one in San Francisco should be sprouting up all over the US. As Americans its so easy to fall back into the belief that this is an English speaking country and that if you want to live here you should be able to speak english. This is not true at all. Spanish is becoming more wide spread everyday and we need to except that. Even get excited about the fact that we are a culturally diverse country. The fact that our children are put in position where they need to learn multiple languages is a blessing. You can travel anywhere in the world and find someone that speaks english but thats not a good way to conduct business. Lets experience other cultures through their language. Even if its in your neighborhood. Give it a try. Its a lot of fun.

  5. ivan veskov

    It is very important for students and children to learn a second language when they are young and schools like this are very important and should be more accessible and available for students all around america. This is a culturally diverse county and using the fact that the united states is a english speaking country is not a excuse for children not to be put in a environment to learn another language. parents of-course don’t want their children to lose their counties language and it would be a shame to lose it because we are a melting pot of different cultures and languages. I firmly believe that being multilingual is a advantage in life and helps out in life whether its just knowing spanish for example in everyday situations in the united states or for travel, jobs, anything international. People tend to ignore the fact the the united states is just another country in a whole world of different languages and cultures.

  6. Christian Escobar

    Learning a new language while growing up is a great way to broaden a students mind to things he or she might not have had interest in. For one parents are now doing this because they see how important it is for their children to be bilingual. Being bilingual opens so many more opportunities for young adults in the job world. The ability to communicate to a language that is not our own is viewed very highly among our society and is of importance to further our education and the education of the children.

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