Bilingual is Better

 

Photo credit: Najib Joe Hakim

As soon as we finished watching Speaking in Tongues, an inspiring documentary film which follows the journey of four children as they become bilingual while immersed in dual language programs, my husband turned to me and declared: “We have to do the same for Vanessa.”

The award-winning film, produced and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, showcases the stories of four kids—and their families—from completely different backgrounds as they struggle and triumph at becoming bilingual and bi-cultural for all kinds of different reasons. It’s all about language immersion education—and you know how we feel about that—told through the extraordinary stories of these four children. The film is engaging and eye-opening. If there ever were any doubts regarding the benefits of bilingualism, Speaking in Tongues, should do away with them.

“Bilingual education is so contentious, it’s often seen as kind of a coated discussion of other things, like our changing demographics and our immigration policy,” said Jarmel who founded Patchwork Films with her husband back in 1994 with the idea to delve into current social issues via character-driven stories. “But if you re-frame it into thinking that being bilingual in any other language is an asset, then what do we look like? Kids who grow up bilingual understand from the get-go that there’s more than one perspective in the world and what would America look like if our citizens understood that our way is just one way?”

The film opens up with several examples taken from YouTube regarding the absurd English-only agenda that many continue to push for and which has sadly become part of the legislation in more than 30 states in this country. Community activist and long-time, ardent supporter of multilingual education, Dr. Ling-chi Wang, talks about how there is no other country that even with such linguistic diversity continues to be monolingual.

“We’re so stuck on this idea that English is our language and that we only need to learn English because the rest of the world is learning English,” explained Jarmel who is not bilingual, but so firmly believes in the power of bilingualism that her two children have been attending dual language public schools in San Francisco since they were in Kindergarten. “Of course we need to learn English. It’s not a matter of kids learning English or not. I think the biggest misconception, which is also the thing that is most counter-intuitive, is that kids will learn English better if they’re learning in two languages.”

It’s a well-known fact that children who speak a minority language when they enter school in the U.S. for the first time—be it Spanish, Chinese or Italian—will become proficient in English quicker and more successfully, if they continue to be taught in their mother tongue. In other words, the idea of trying to “erase” their first language by immersing them in an English-only curriculum in an effort to help them learn this country’s majority language is not only counter-productive, but it’s also a way of undermining the prestige and importance of speaking a minority language.

“One of the things I love about the immersion schools is that the kids who are native speakers of the language that’s being taught they, instead of been seen as them having some kind of deficit, they actually have an asset,” Jarmel expressed.

Photo credit: Najib Joe Hakim

One of the greatest aspects of the film is that the four children it follows come from completely different backgrounds (there’s a Caucasian eighth-grader, an Asian-American sixth-grader, a Latino fifth-grader and an African-American kindergartner) and are learning a second language (Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish) for a variety of reasons including: heritage, future career opportunities, communication with family elders.

There are several poignant moments in the film, but I won’t ruin it by telling you about them, so you’ll just have to see for yourselves. I will; however, share with you that my heart broke when I heard some of the Asian-American family members, of the one girl portrayed in the film, talking about not been able to have a relationship with their grandmother because they can’t speak Chinese and she doesn’t speak English. As I’ve mentioned in the past, nothing would hurt me more than my children not been able to communicate with their non-English speaking relatives in Peru and Puerto Rico. To me, raising them bilingual is more than just giving them a professional edge, it’s about familia and heritage.

“It’s a very powerful model,” said Jarmel. “Our desire is that there will be more of a national conversation about the value of bilingualism, which is both about creating opportunities for kids to learn a second language and for valuing the languages that kids bring into the schools because we need all of that.”

Speaking in Tongues is scheduled to air on PBS stations around the country in August, in the meantime, Jarmel is also looking to get in touch with local organizations/groups of people which advocate multilingual education to arrange community screenings. As all of you are SpanglishBaby readers because you believe in the importance of bilingualism, I strongly suggest you get in touch with her to make this happen in your communities and get the conversation on this extremely important issue rolling.

Although you have to wait until the Fall to view the film on PBS, you can purchase the DVD here or your can enter to win your very own copy, which Jarmel is graciously giving away to one lucky SpanglishBaby reader, by reading below.

The Giveaway

This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to our winner #8 Jana!

For your chance to win a copy of Speaking in Tongues, please watch the trailer by going here, and come back to tell us why you think you’d like to watch the film.

Giveaway rules.

This giveaway ends at midnight EST on Sunday, April 25, 2010. Entries/Comments that do not follow the submission guidelines will be invalid and automatically deleted.  Sorry, just need to keep  it fair. Good luck to all!

Disclosure: A sample DVD was provided for review purposes; all opinions are 100% ours. Check out our full Disclosure + Privacy Policy.

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