One of the things I love so much, if not the best, about Los Angeles is our polyglot culture, where signs for Thai food are written in three languages and Armenian and Korean advertisements align on one street. There are over 224 identified languages spoken in Los Angeles County, and 92 identified languages spoken by students in the public school system.
The number of languages spoken in states across the country is rapidly increasing and it is estimated that by 2025 one third of the public school children in America won’t speak English. In the San Francisco metropolitan area, where Speaking in Tongues takes place, area there are 112 identified languages.
Speaking in Tongues teaches the advantage of students taking part in an optional immersion programs for Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish, following four students ranging in age from kindergarten to 8th grade during a year of their studies.
Along the way we hear arguments pro and con for bilingual education. Though California passed Proposition 227, a ballot measure that required schools to do away with bilingual education and instead channel English learners into mainstream English-only classrooms for what is basically English immersion, at an impassioned San Francisco school board meeting the case is made by parents and activists to offer every child in city the same opportunity.
Dual language immersion has its profound benefits: According to studies cited by filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, students in foreign language immersion programs learn to read, write, speak, and listen in English just as well or better as students in all-English programs, along with learning in a second language. In addition, students who learn second languages tend to do better on standardized tests (like the SAT and the ACT) and in college. Language learning has been shown to have a positive effect on intellectual growth and cognitive development, improving a child’s understanding of his/her native language.
But with so many languages spoken in school systems, will students who are from minority languages like Hmong and Navaho find their way to be trilingual via immersion, or loose their native tongues? . . .
The loss of their native Cantonese is expressed by Kelly’s parents who can’t speak the language, while Kelly herself is able to converse with with her grandmother, crossing cultural and generational barriers.
For Jason, whose parents left Mexico and never graduated elementary school, his fluency in English and Spanish is a source of profound pride and hope. Kindergarten student Durrell is able able to converse in Mandarin, opening up new opportunities for him; like teenage Julian, he too may one day be able to travel to Beijing, and possibly achieve in the global economy.
The necessity to be fluent in more than just English is stressed in the documentary not only by the children and their lives, but by conversations with community activist Ling-chi Wang who points out that not only do employers need multilingual skills, but universities spend millions of dollars teaching foreign languages, and our national security apparatus pours millions more into teaching “strategic languages;” Appallingly, before 9/11 there were only 33 Arabic speakers in the FBI.
Thirty-one states have passed English-only legislation, and Congress regularly has English-as-the official-language bills before it. School funding is at a hideous low, and some parents, both native and immigrant, want their kids to learn English as the foundational language.
The benefit of foreign language immersion is clear from Speaking in Tongues, not only providing children with language skills both in English and another tongue, but increasing their overall learning skills, confidence and social abilities as well as their long term chances for employment. But can America overcome cultural barriers, prejudices and current economic realities in order to create a better economic and social future?