Part I: Behind the Scenes of Speaking in Tongues
Lydia: Welcome to this podcast from Colorín Colorado, a bilingual website providing information for parents and educators of English language learners. I'm your host, Lydia Breiseth, and in this installment of our Meet the Experts interview series, you'll get a behind-the-scenes look at Speaking in Tongues, a documentary about dual-language education directed by Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel. The film follows four students from San Francisco enrolled in different dual-language programs. Ken stopped by our offices recently to talk about Speaking in Tongues, and he started by sharing some of the personal experiences that led him and Marcia to make the film.
The seeds of Speaking in Tongues
Ken: 10 years ago, our eldest son was ready to go to kindergarten and we had to make the first momentous decision of our educational career as parents, and we did a core values check-in and then decided we really wanted our kids to have the gift of multilingualism, which was the one thing we could not give them at home.
So we toured various schools, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese language schools, and put him in a Cantonese dual-immersion public school. When we told our community, friends and loved ones about this, we received in response, one of two responses, either "Hmm, interesting," or, "Why Chinese?" And we marveled at that and thought that maybe there was some fear of the unknown, maybe a little veiled racism.
And then four years later, in the year 2004, we sent our second son to the same school. And universally the response we got was, "Chinese, how wonderful." And we marveled at this again and assumed that, since we hadn't changed and the school hadn't changed, that what had changed was the culture and that maybe the culture was actually evolving in its attitude around dual-language education.
In the early years of being a parent of a dual-language kid, we were really just appreciating it all, and then at a certain point, we noticed that inside the classroom was this interesting, it was almost a new melting pot of America.
There were people like ourselves whose kids were in the program because the parents wanted the kids to become global citizens. There were…parents who put their kids in there because they thought it would elevate their academic achievement. There were parents who put their kids in there because the parents themselves had lost their heritage language to assimilation, and they recognized that if they didn't educate their child in their heritage language, then not only the linguistic but also the cultural line in their household would be severed. There were people who were new immigrant families who felt that dual language was the best way to integrate their kids into American culture while maintaining their home language.
So, in this melting pot, we saw what we felt were some of the pressing issues in our culture today: academic achievement, immigrant integration, learning new languages as a 21st-century skill, and out of that came the seeds of Speaking in Tongues.
[Student speaking Chinese]
Julia (Julian's mom): "It's about being a good world citizen. You see what's going on everywhere else, within America and even outside of America."
[Student speaking Spanish]
Maria (Jason's mom): "Para que él esté mejor preparado cuando el esté grande, que busque un trabajo mejor, va a tener doble oportunidad si habla los dos lenguas."
(Translation: So that he is better prepared when he is older, to find a better job and have twice as many opportunities because he speaks two languages.)
[Student speaking Chinese]
Jenny (Kelly's mom): "I can speak maybe 10 words of Chinese. So I didn't really feel qualified to pass on the language. And I knew by the time they had kids, it would be pretty much lost."
[Student speaking Chinese]
Ijnanya (EJ, Durell's mom): "It's a way out and also a way in. This will introduce him to more things. He'll have more options."
Multilingualism as an assest
Ken: When we started making the film, of course, we were so fascinated by our own kids' experience at our own school that we thought we're going to make a profile of the school because we thought it would be interesting to look at language through the lens of Chinese, which for many people is not as fraught as looking at the Spanish-language programs, which have been perceived by many Americans to have been a failure.
Ultimately we realized that to really take on language we had to look at not only American-born kids learning Chinese but also non-native English speakers learning English while raising their own mother tongue to academic levels, and we knew we had to contend not just with Chinese, which many people associate with globalization and job opportunities, but also that we had to look at Spanish acquisition, at immigrants from our southern border, and out of that potentially very complicated story, we decided to focus on four kids, each of whom represented a different gradation of this story of language acquisition.
So, the intent is really to put on the same plane somebody like my own child, an American-born Caucasian kid who is learning a second language and becoming a global citizen, with an immigrant from another culture who is mastering English while continuing study in their mother tongue. Those are really the same thing. The idea is that wherever you start from, regardless of your home language, regardless of your class or your ethnicity, learning in a multiple language is an asset. It's an asset for you, for your family, for your community and, we would argue, it's an asset for the country.
[Teacher speaking Chinese]
EJ: "I think people are a little skeptical about how it works. People say that, you know, if their children are learning 90% in Chinese, how are they going to learn English, who's going to talk to them, but I'd rather Durell have something different in his background, rather than just regular kindergarten."
Getting to Know the Students
Ken: So, we have four kids profiled in Speaking in Tongues and the first one is a kindergartener named Durell. He is an African American boy living in public housing. He has a single mom and his mom had the vision to put him in a Mandarin immersion program. Durell is doing quite well in the program. He reads, writes, and speaks Mandarin, and his challenge is that when he goes back home to his community, there are no other models for kids who are studying Chinese or studying any second language for that matter.
He's a bit on an island, and in his class as well there's not many African Americans, just one or two others, and most African-American families we spoke to from his neighborhood are not willing to put their kids in that program. They see it as a potential burden and what they really want is their kids to be successful, and for most families we talked to success means completing, graduating school, not necessarily acquiring a second or third language. So, Durell is a pioneer and he and his mom and the school are hoping that his example will encourage other African Americans across class to sign up for language immersion programs.
Jason: "I think I'm a typical normal kid. My family speaks Spanish, but I can speak two languages. I like rock, the Beatles, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple."
Laura (Jason's teacher): "I think it's a social thing, as kids get stronger and stronger in English, their social alliances and ties sometimes change. If Jason did not attend this kind of school, he would definitely lose the Spanish, all of his writing and reading and Spanish skills would be gone, definitely."
Ken: There's a fifth grade boy named Jason Patiño. Jason's parents are Mexican immigrants. They have no education in any language. Now typically, Jason would be in an English-only classroom and his Spanish would never exceed the level of his parents uneducated Spanish. His parents had the courage to put him in a Spanish immersion program which means that he is learning content, academic content, in both English and Spanish.
He can read and write in Spanish which his parents cannot and his level of spoken Spanish, now he's in ninth grade, already exceeds that of his parents. So, Jason will be an ambassador and a liaison from his parents into their community, and there's confusion about this. Many people say, "Well, isn't Jason's English going to be diminished because he's spending so much time on Spanish?" Actually, it's just the opposite. It's not an either/or — it's a both/and. Because Jason is continuing to learn in his home language, Spanish, his English will actually exceed that of his counterparts who are in English-only classrooms. There's some pretty good data about that.
Jason's dad, José, is a central Mexican immigrant with no education. He has a lot of inherent intelligence and integrity and he and his wife, Maria, put Jason and his two younger brothers in Spanish immersion for this very reason: they wanted him to be successful both in the language of their adopted country and in their mother tongue. José can't imagine a scenario in which they didn't share Spanish.
The Spanish, your native tongue, after all, is your language of deep emotion. It's your language of family heritage. It's the language where you hear the stories of your family and your heritage and your country, in some cases of your religion and if the parent speaks that but the child doesn't, there's a chasm which you can never cross and parents like José and Maria recognize that.
Kelly: "It's kind of harder to say stuff in Chinese, because I usually speak English and some things I don't know how to say in Chinese and she doesn't understand me, but I also like speaking to her in Chinese because I can practice my language with her and she always tells me if I say something wrong so she can help me fix it."
Ken: Our third kid is a girl named Kelly Wong and Kelly's grandparents speak Cantonese but her parents lost it due to shame and their desire as young people to assimilate, to become white, to become American, to not be called by their grandmother in Chinese in front of their other friends and Kelly is bringing Cantonese language and culture back into the household.
Julia: "Julian came home one day and he said, 'Mom, I'm Chinese, aren't I?' And I didn't quite know how to respond to that, I didn't want to burst his bubble and say that he wasn't Chinese. But you know I thought that was really great that he thought he was part of this and he didn't see himself as any different than the other children there, who were obviously Chinese."
Julian: "It's fun to be just part of a language, be part of a culture. I personally want to go to China. I'm definitely looking forward to just go there and see if my language skills are worth a hoot."
Ken: Our fourth kid is in the film he's an eighth grader, now he's a college senior and his name is Julian Edis. He's a Caucasian American. He speaks Mandarin and Cantonese as well as English. He reads and writes all three languages and in eighth grade he went with a school trip to China, spoke Chinese, made a Chinese speech, had various adventures in Beijing in the south and is poised to be a successful 21st-century American.
It would have been great to make a film like 28 Up by Michael Apted where we would follow somebody over time, have a longitudinal study. Those films are hard to make, they're hard to fund, and we decided to make a basically a composite character; Durell the kindergartener, Kelly the fifth grader, Jason the sixth grader, Julian the eighth grader, and so what you see is what it's like from your first day of kindergarten when somebody's speaking a strange language to you until you graduate middle school, where you can travel to China and navigate your way through the market and bargain.
How the characters revealed themselves
Lydia: I then asked Ken how he and Marcia found the dynamic students and families that we get to know throughout the film.
Ken: The dirty little secret of documentary is a word that is usually associated with Hollywood: casting. Marcia Jarmel and I, my co-producer and partner by the way, when we make films, we are making character-driven documentaries, and what that means is that characters come first and if there are any issues, the issues are embedded in the character's stories, not the other way around. So, we cast about looking for characters who are both compelling on camera, and that includes their families by the way, because we knew we wanted to go home with each of our characters, and we also look for people whose character arcs would tell stories and would reflect issues.
So, Durell in a sense is an advertisement that this can work for anybody because often times people say "Oh, these are boutique programs that appeal to middle class people with lots of resources," and what not. Well, Durell's family shows that what you really need is, you need will and an involved parent and you can be successful and each of the kids is reflective, representative of another side of this language immersion portrait.
We found these kids by choosing schools first. In San Francisco, there's about 16 schools that have some language-immersion component. We met with principals, we met with teachers, we did a lot of research, we went to schools without the camera and once we knew what we were looking for, the characters revealed themselves.
During the filming there were two moments that come to mind where we really felt like we're in some transcendent moment and that we had captured on film. The first one is a very simple moment. We are interviewing Durell and his mother in their home and his mother is recounting the story of how they were shopping at Nordstrom's and how Durell translated for an elderly Chinese woman and she at first had not paid any attention to him, but when he translated for her because her English was lacking, she responded by saying in her broken English "You speak Chinese better than my grandchildren. One day you'll be Ambassador to China." And that to me was a perfect metaphor for language immersion.
A really magical moment happened after Jason's graduation, Jason being our Mexican-American boy from an immigrant family; we interviewed his father, José, and he could not contain his emotions. It was his first child to graduate anywhere and we're talking about a fifth-grade graduation here and José was overcome with emotion, and not just the pleasure of bringing a child to this point which is a real parenting rite of passage, but also that he knew that his son was going to be okay in the world. He had English, he had Spanish, he was skilled, he was going to make it.
Cutting room floor
Lydia: As we prepared for the interview, Ken mentioned that a number of scenes hadn't made it into the film. I asked him to tell us about the material that had been left on the cutting room floor.
Ken: The cutting room is lousy with good stories and this is always a tough moment when you let go of some of your favorite stories in the film. One we really wanted to tell but just barely glanced by is the story of integration. Durell's story in particular offers the possibility of using the language immersion program as a way to integrate the classroom. It has been complicated because very few other members of Durell's community, that is African Americans, have signed up for this program and we explored it more in-depth why that is and that unfortunately is in the cutting room floor but it will be on our website very soon.
We also had a deeper exploration of the brain which will also be on our website because there's some very interesting brain research on particularly about the young brain which is very supple and can take in new languages and the young brain which is exposed to new language early will then be able to speak that language without an accent, and if you learn a language at age 12 or 13 or 14 which is when most Americans actually do learn a language in school, I wouldn't say it's too late but the optimal window has begun to close, so we had a more of an explanation of that story on the cutting room floor.
Speaking in Tongues: Response and outreach
Lydia: Given the wide range of opinions surrounding dual-language learning, I asked Ken what reaction to the film had been like. Before we hear from him though, we'll hear from community activist and professor Dr. Ling-chi Wang.
Dr. Ling-chi Wang: "I think it's really kind of ironic that in America, in the past, we tried everything that we can possibly do through our educational process to purge the linguistic ability of the children of different language backgrounds as they enter into the school district, and then succeed in purging, whether it be Chinese, Spanish, or French, or whatever language, and then when they get to college level, then we spend millions in college education to try to teach some college students the same languages that we succeeded in purging out of our children. Imagine if we are able to capture these assets and retain them and then use them. America is really linguistically the richest country in the world."
Ken: People respond very differently to dual language depending on who's taking it. So, for example, no one I spoke to resists the idea of an American-born Caucasian kid learning a foreign language. If it's an American-born Asian American kid, for example, many people think, well, that kid should learn Chinese at home. That's the domain of the family. If it's a Latino kid who is born abroad and immigrated here, there's widespread resistance to that child learning in Spanish even while they're also acquiring English. So, yeah, people respond very differently and I think there's a lot of confusion there.
I think there's great debate about integration and people when they look at Spanish bilingual programs, Spanish dual-language programs they see this through the overlay of their feelings of integration in our southern border. When you talk about Chinese acquisition, people think of job opportunities. When you mention Arabic immersion, which has been attempted in one or two communities in the country but has been protested widely, people bring their opinions about Arabic, the Middle East, and about Muslims into that discussion. So, I think people…I think Americans are still warming up to the idea of having languages as an asset, and we're working to educate the country on this very issue.
We've got this big outreach campaign now for Speaking in Tongues and communities around the country are showing it and I mean around the country, every region. This is not a border issue, it's not a New York, Miami, Houston, L.A. issue anymore, and communities are using it to open up discussions and in some cases to create a measured discussion where before there was only heat.
So for example, in Lake Tahoe, California the suggested opening of a new Spanish-immersion school raised incredible ire from half the community and discussion was stopped. A group came in and brought our film and created a series of town hall-type meetings and now there's a more measured discussion.
In Utah, who has the most new Chinese-immersion programs of anywhere in the country, the state superintendent of schools is using a customized, Utah-centric version of the film to travel around the state and gain support for this program because they recognize that multilingualism is a fundamental 21st-century skill.
The other thing is that right now there's great discussion around educational reform. There's a very prominent film called Waiting for Superman which is making a big splash. I think there's confusion about where and when and how the public schools do and do not succeed, and I think our film and the programs it profiles represent something to reach for, not something to react against and it's not a panacea. There is no single panacea, you know, poets in the schools and arts in the schools and all that, they're all essential building blocks, but I think that the language-immersion education could and should be part of this national dialogue on what is the role of the public schools in the 21st century.
Lydia: In addition to the great behind-the-scenes information on Speaking in Tongues, Ken also offered some ideas for people who are interested in hosting their own screening of the film.
Ken: Educators, parents and advocates who have been hosting screenings in their communities have started with our website, where there's a lot of resources on our website. I would recommend to them that they start to bring together the stakeholders in their communities so people who are most against this idea and people who are most for it and try to use the film to create a dialogue, because the film is about stories, it's about success stories of kids who are in various language-immersion programs, and I think that community advocates have to start thinking about what to reach towards, not necessarily what to react against.
Lydia: As we reached the end of Part I of the interview, Ken talked about what he and Marcia would be working on next.
Ken: So, our next film is about a young man who, as part of his Bar Mitzvah rite of passage, has to do a community service project and he chooses to collect baseball equipment, he's an avid baseballer, and send it to Cuba, and he chooses Cuba not for any political reasons but because his Grandpa, who was a Holocaust refugee, was refused entry into the U.S. but was sheltered by Cuba during World War II and this young man who is 13, now 14, finds that sending the equipment to Cuba quite literally requires an act of Congress, and so the film is in part coming of age story, part road movie, and part geopolitical mystery.
Lydia: This brings us to the end of Part I of our interview with Ken Schneider. In Part II, Ken talks about his children's dual-language program. Learn more about Speaking in Tongues and find out how you can host your own screening of the film at www.speakingintonguesfilm.info.
Thank you for listening to this Colorín Colorado podcast, made possible by the American Federation of Teachers and public broadcasting station WETA. Additional support is provided by the Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. To listen to part two of the interview with Ken, visit www.colorincolorado.org.
Part II: A Parent's Perspective on Dual-language Education
Lydia: Welcome to this podcast from Colorín Colorado, a bilingual website providing information for parents and educators of English language learners. I'm your host, Lydia Breiseth, and this is part II of our interview with filmmaker Ken Schneider. He and partner Marcia Jarmel are the creators of Speaking in Tongues, a documentary about dual-language education. You'll hear Ken talk about his own families' experiences with a dual-language program, as well as a brief segment from the documentary itself.
Ken: Well, you have to remember that a kindergartener has no other experience of school but the one they're in. So, our kids' kindergarten experience was that 90% of their lessons were given in Chinese and somewhere around November my older son said to me "Daddy, did you go into kindergarten?" And I said, "Yeah" and he said "Well, was your kindergarten in English or Chinese?" And that was a reminder that his whole frame of reference was this little life experience he'd already had, so to him it wasn't unusual or strange or different, just, it was.
And because they start learning from day one of kindergarten in the target language which in their case was Cantonese, they learned it almost like any of us learn our mother tongue: grownups talking at them, and within the first few days of school he was singing simple Chinese songs. They were trying to teach us Chinese characters and words and I was neck and neck with them for the first three days. After that, he pulled away and I've been left in the dust ever since.
Our kids by the end of eighth grade are trilingual in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. Other kids are bilingual in either English and Spanish or French or Hmong or whatever that target language is, but I think because they start from the first day of kindergarten, it's not strange or unusual to them.
Julian: "I've been studying in a Chinese-immersion program for nine years. Probably the understanding started to set in half-way through first grade. We got our Chinese names, we started to actually converse in Chinese in the class. We took all our math classes up to seventh grade were in Chinese, science they taught us in Chinese up to fifth grade."
Phil (Julian's dad): "We needed constant reassurance from the early teachers and administrators that we wouldn't have to help him with homework or, you know, there wouldn't be problems at home because we couldn't speak it."
Ken: There's some cross-cultural challenges as parents. We don't always have access to some of the communities in our school who are native Chinese speakers. Some of those cultural barriers take more time to cross. People always ask, "Well, how can you be involved in your kids' school? You can't help them with homework." but actually it's really not an issue. We help them with math. We help them with their English homework which in the immersion model it increases year by year. So, for example, at my kids' school they start at 90% Chinese, 10% English and by fourth grade it's 50/50.
So, there's plenty of ways we can be involved. We can go on field trips with them. We can make snack. We can, you know, staple papers, whatever, and it's been a cross-cultural experience not just for our kids but also for us as parents and we have met people and been to people's homes who normally we might not think we had natural affinities with.
Lydia: This brings us to the end of Part II of our interview with Ken Schneider. In part 1, Ken offers a behind the scenes look at Speaking in Tongues. Learn more about the film and find out how you can host your own screening at www.speakingintonguesfilm.info.
Thank you for listening to this Colorín Colorado podcast, made possible by the American Federation of Teachers and public broadcasting station WETA. Additional support is provided by the Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. To listen to part I of the interview with Ken, visit www.colorincolorado.org.
Ken Schneider is the co-director of Speaking in Tongues, a documentary about dual-language education that he filmed with Marcia Jarmel.