Schools at the Festival
4 kids become bilingual in an experience that transforms both themselves and their country.
Speaking in Tongues begins with an ordinary first day of public school kindergarten – except that
the teacher speaks only Chinese. Most of her primarily white and Asian American students look
confused but curious; a few nod knowingly. They are all in a language immersion class, where,
from day one, they will receive 90% of their instruction in Cantonese. Remarkably, their school
will test first in English and math among their district’s 76 elementary schools.
The film’s four protagonists come to language immersion programs for very different reasons.
Jason is a first generation Mexican-American whose immigrant family embraces bilingualism as
the key to full participation in the land of opportunity. Durrell is an African-American
kindergartner whose mom hopes that learning Mandarin will be a way out of economic uncertainty
and into possibility. Kelly is a Chinese- American recapturing the Cantonese her parents sacrificed
to become American. Julian is a Caucasian 8th grader eager to expand his horizons and become a
good world citizen. Together, they represent a nexus of challenges facing America today: economic
and academic inequities, de facto segregation, record numbers of new immigrants, and the need to
communicate across cultures. Using a verité story-telling approach, the film follows our characters
as they enter the portal of language and open their minds to new ways of thinking and being in the
world. In a time of globalization and changing demographics, bilingualism offers them more than
an opportunity to join the global job market. Language becomes a metaphor for breaking down
barriers between ourselves and our neighbors—be they around the corner or across the world.
While the kids grow in ease and skill with their second tongue, the grown-ups argue. Durrell orders
his first Chinatown meal in Mandarin; an uncle at a family dinner prasies bilingualism, citing the
needs of the global economy. Kelly learns traditional cooking from her Chinese-speaking grandma;
yet her great aunt scoffs at any form of bilingual education, citing tax burdens. Jason becomes the
first in his family to read, write, and graduate elementary school; meanwhile at a school enrollment
fair, a concerned Latino father asks where his daughter can learn more English. Julian travels to
China and bargains for clothes in Mandarin at a Beijing marketplace; an angry Chinese dad at a
school meeting bellows, “We are in America! We need English!”
To explore these contentious debates at the national level, Speaking in Tongues turns to Ling-chi
Wang, a community activist who pioneered efforts to establish multilingual education in the United
States. He takes us on a brief You Tube tour of the national discourse: critics bemoan a loss of
national identity and warn of an impending Balkanization of the United States, while others warn
of the national security risks of having too few Arabic speakers. Ling-chi laments the nation’s
stubborn attachment to monolingualism, a phenomenon that masks deeper social tensions about
diversity and difference. His rallying cry is that the United States is a nation whose linguistic
richness is among its greatest assets. Employers need multilingual skills, universities spends
millions teaching foreign languages, and our national security apparatus pours millions into
teaching “strategic languages.” Yet the U.S. congress routinely considers “English-only”
legislation, and 31 states have already passed such laws.
But Ling-chi doesn’t have time for hand wringing; A gavel brings us to a packed school board
meeting where he’s spearheading an initiative to offer every public school child in San Francisco
the opportunity that Jason, Durrell, Kelly, and Julian have. Will one city’s bold experiment become
a model for transforming Americans into global citizens?
SAN FRANCISCO FILM SOCIETY Study Guide – Speaking in Tongues
Biography of Producers/Directors Marcia Jarmel & Ken Schneider
Ken Schneider is producer, editor, and sound recordist for PatchWorks films.
He is also an accomplished freelance editor whose credits include award winning documentaries on
a broad range of subjects, from art and literature to war and peace, immigration, disability and
social justice. Ken co-edited the feature documentary Regret To Inform, winner of the Peabody
Award, Indie Spirit Award and Sundance Film Festival Directing award, as well as the IDA Award
for most distinctive use of archival footage. Regret also was nominated for an Academy Award and
a National Emmy.
Other editing credits include Bolinao 52 about Vietnamese boat refugees; the PBS American
Masters specials Orozco: Man of Fire and Ralph Ellison: An American Journey; P.O.V. special
Freedom Machines, about the convergence of disability, technology and civil rights; PBS
primetime special The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, which aired on Martin
Luther King’s birthday and won best historical documentary awards from both the American
Historical Association and Organization of American Historians; PBS special and Golden Gate
award-winner Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town; Frontline’s Columbia-Dupont Award
winning School Colors, a look at integration and segregation 40 years after Brown v. Board of
Education; and Ancestors in the Americas, Part 2: Pioneers in the American West, about the
Ken has collaborated with Nina Wise, the dancer/performance artist; Charlie Varon, the solo
theater performer; Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Academy award-winning filmmakers, and
Richard Beggs, Academy award-winning sound designer, among others. Ken has consulted on
dozens of documentaries, and lectures at San Francisco City College, the San Francisco Art
Institute, and New York University.
Marcia Jarmel founded PatchWorks with Ken Schneider in 1994. She has been producing and
directing documentaries for over 15 years. Her best-known work is the ITVS-funded Born in the
U.S.A., which aired on the PBS series Independent Lens and was hailed as the “best film on
childbirth” by the former director of maternal health at the World Health Organization. The
documentary has been used to educate hundreds about childbirth options, and to lobby legislators
to reform midwifery laws. Nine years after its national broadcast, Born in the U.S.A. continues to
engage families, communities, and health care professionals.
Marcia’s other films include Collateral Damage, a mother’s lament about the human costs of war
that screened worldwide in theatres, museums, festivals and schools as part of Underground Zero:
Filmmakers Respond to 9/11. Her Return of Sarah’s Daughters examines the allure of Orthodox
Judaism to secular young women. The hour-long documentary won a CINE Golden Eagle,
National Educational Media Network Gold Apple, and 1st Place in the Jewish Video Competition.
It screened on international public television, and at the American Cinematheque, International
Documentary Film Festival, Women in the Director’s Chair, Cinequest and numerous other film
festivals. Her first film, The F Word: A short video about Feminism uses whimsical animation and
interviews to foster discussion on this so-called contentious topic. Still in distribution after 15 years
with Women Make Movies, The F Word screened on KQED’s Living Room Festival, AFI’s
VideoFest, and the Judy Chicago film series at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Marcia’s additional credits include producing and directing films for the San Francisco World
Music Festival, co-editing the Academy-award nominee, For Better or For Worse, and assistant
producing the Academy Award nominees Berkeley in the Sixties and Freedom on My Mind. She
was a resident at Working Films Content + Intent Doc Institute and has guest lectured at Stanford
University San Francisco City College, San Francisco State University, and New York University.
SAN FRANCISCO FILM SOCIETY Study Guide – Speaking in Tongues
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.
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?
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.
We’ve witnessed this transformation in our own home. Our sons are in their fourth and eighth year
in a public school Chinese immersion program. They cause a stir when they order in accent-less
Chinese at local restaurants. But they also have translated for a confused Chinese speaker lost at the
doctor, visited shut-in Chinese speaking elders, felt at home in a traditional Chinese home, and
very important for us, helped us understand our film footage. When spoken to by a native speaker,
they don’t pause to translate; they think in Chinese, having learned it like a baby, by hearing it
spoken around them. Their experience prompts the telling of these small stories that in turn
provoke one of the most compelling questions of our day: what do we as a nation need to know in
the 21st century?
SAN FRANCISCO FILM SOCIETY Study Guide – Speaking in Tongues
There is always a point during the production where you look at your co-Producer, or at yourself, if
you are flying solo, and say, “We’ve got it. We’ve got a movie.” Fortunately for us, this happened
on our first shoot. I say fortunately, because it took nearly three years from that moment to fund the
movie, or, as we say on a bad day, “that damn movie.”
Our “A-ha moment” came when we filmed the first day of kindergarten at a Chinese immersion
public school, where the teacher speaks to the children exclusively in Cantonese. The children in
her class are mostly Asian or Caucasian, with a few Latino and African-American kids. Regardless
of their ethnicity, all but a few were native English speakers and most had never heard a word of
Cantonese. Yet by the end of the first hour, each child had been called to the front of the class,
shown the hook where they could hang their coat, the shelf where they could put their lunch, and
the bucket where they could deposit their backpack. And by the end of that hour, each one of them,
and each of us, knew that shoo-bow is the Cantonese word for backpack.