XFINITY On Demand Cinema Asian America: Filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider Discuss ‘Speaking in Tongues’

by | January 9, 2012 at 11:39 AM | Cinema Asian America, Indie Film Club, Xfinity On Demand

“Speaking In Tongues.”

This month Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand presents an essential viewing experience for the start of 2012; the documentary “Speaking In Tongues”. Made by Bay Area veteran filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, “Tongues” explores the timely and pressing issues of language and education in the US. Through the experiences of several children attending Spanish and Chinese immersion schools in San Francisco, “Tongues” boldly looks to the future and explores and just what a multi-lingual American can look like.

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“Speaking In Tongues” on one level follows the experiences of four children who are journeying through Chinese and Spanish language immersion programs, but at the same time is addressing some much larger social dynamics and questions which shape the direction they are taking. What core ideas are you hoping to address through this film?

MJ & KS: Sometimes a small idea has big implications. Consider America’s resolute commitment to remaining an “English only” nation. It turns out that our attitudes about language reflect much bigger concerns: that language is a metaphor for the barriers that come between neighbors, be they across the street or around the world.

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Our idea in making “Speaking in Tongues” was to showcase a world where these communication barriers are being addressed. An African-American boy from public housing learns to read, write, and speak Mandarin. A Mexican-American boy, whose parents are not literate in any language, develops professional-level Spanish while mastering English. A Chinese-American girl regains her grandparents’ mother tongue—a language her parents lost through assimilation. A Caucasian teen travels to Beijing to stay with a Mandarin speaking host family. Their stories reveal the promise of a multilingual America. Each kid’s world opens up when they start learning two languages on the first day of kindergarten; each is developing both bi-cultural and bi-lingual fluency.

Support for this idea comes from an odd cross section of America. Business leaders point to a “flattening” world, seeking workers with multilingual skills like those displayed by many from rising nations; the Department of Defense pours hundreds of millions of dollars into teaching languages deemed “strategic” to national security (today Mandarin, Arabic, Russian. Tomorrow, Hindi? Portuguese? Malay?). And many educators tout the improved test scores of bilingual children—whether they speak English as a first language or not. Why then, is bilingualism not de rigeur in the U.S. as it is in most nations?

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Many Americans have a different perspective. We are becoming a modern-day Babel, detractors warn; our national identity is at risk. Witness Nashville’s recent vote aimed at making English the city’s “official language,” something 31 states have already voted to do. New York City, in turn, felt the hostility last year when street demonstrations erupted over the opening of an Arabic immersion public school named after Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese Christian writer who once lived in New York. Even liberal Palo Alto, California, had a hard time allowing a Mandarin immersion program to open. Some said there was fear it would attract too many Chinese to the neighborhood. Attitudes toward bilingualism can be a mask for complicated fears that are hard to talk about: the impact of new immigrants, and global competition, to name two hot button issues. But in our diverse country, in our increasingly international world, is knowing English enough?

The ensemble cast of “Speaking in Tongues” answers on camera. As their educational adventure unfolds, we witness how learning a second language transforms their sense of self, their families, and their communities. In a time of globalization and changing demographics, bilingualism offers these kids more than an opportunity to join the global job market. They connect with their grandparents, they communicate with their immigrant friends, they travel comfortably abroad. They are becoming global citizens.

“Speaking In Tongues” was made in the Bay Area, which is one the more linguistically and culturally diverse places in the nation. How does the larger question of bilingual education you raise play out in other parts of the country? Do people in other states and cities face the same questions that your subjects in California face?

MJ & KS: Multilingualism used to be border state issue, but with the shifting demographics of small and large communities across the country, this is no longer the case. Almost every community has significant linguistic minorities now. I talked to someone from a small North Carolina town who told me they’d had a 700% increase in Spanish speakers over 10 years, completely blindsiding the social service and medical community. There experience is not unusual. By 2030, demographers expect 30% of public school students will not be native English speakers. Our failure to recognize that the U.S. into an English-only country, coupled with the fact that educated people around the world are multilingual, puts the U.S. way behind in thinking about these issues.

You have a great range of subjects in the film, who upend our expectations of race, language, and culture. How did you find and select the four children you follow?

MJ & KS: Choosing our characters was a very fun process. We visited a dozen classrooms, talked with teachers and principals. When you walk into a classroom you can see immediately which kids will light up the screen. We knew the terrain we wanted to cover, so when we met kids we loved and then found that their parents could add an additional dimension to the story—well, the match was made.

The film has been very successful at film festivals, and also as an educational tool; what contexts has the film made the most impact in, and how can others use it as a teaching tool?

MJ & KS: We’ve been very fortunate with “Speaking in Tongues”. I think we chose a subject no one was thinking about at a time when the subject is gaining currency.

Besides its PBS broadcast and being featured at festivals from New Orleans to Mumbai, the film has shown in more than 1500 communities to date, and continues to have screenings on a regular basis. In each setting there is a different type of impact, whether it’s a college student finally understanding why her parents shipped her to India each summer to keep up her language, to a healthcare administrator in tears sharing how her staff’s lack of language skills interferes with the quality of service she can provide. You can see the lights go on for parents, students, administrators, and policymakers, borne on the emotional ride of these four kids and their families.

The film has helped to save programs from the budget chopping block, spurred communities to create new programs, promoted the state of Utah’s groundbreaking initiative to promote language immersion, and educated members of Congress, not to mention encouraging students and parents to consider the value of keeping and developing second language skills.

We’ve developed many resources for using the film in classrooms, boardrooms, communities, and at home—all available free on our website: www.speakingintonguesfilm.info. We have some short videos you can download to use in presentations, lesson plans, case studies, and fact sheets on different issues there too. We’re also posting news about the issue regularly on the film’s Facebook page.

Anyone interested in bringing these ideas to their community, can download our free community event hosting guide too.

Our hope: the film will continue to spur important conversations on many fronts as long as the issue persists.

What are you working on now?

MJ & KS: Ken and I are in post-production on a coming-of-age story following a boy at the crossroads between youthful idealism and the cynicism of the adult world. His efforts to send baseball gear to kids in Cuba lead him on a journey that changes his relationship to many things he loves: baseball, his family, and his Jewish identity. (Learn more)

We’re also early on in the development of a film looking at how new media is changing democracy in the U.S. (Learn more)