Elevate Difference

Speaking in Tongues

The award-winning documentary Speaking in Tongues spells out an intriguing paradox of America’s identity: Although we’re a nation that prides itself on diversity, we also militantly cling to monolingual education at the expense of culture, communication, and even academic achievement.

Speaking in Tongues follows four San Francisco children, all of whom attend either a Spanish or Chinese immersion public school: a young African-American boy who lives in public housing but is gaining fluency at his Chinese school; a Chinese-American girl who is one of the only people in her family who can communicate with her grandmother; a Caucasian boy who tests out his Mandarin on a trip to China; and a Mexican-American boy who is the first in his family to learn to read and write Spanish, in addition to English.

The naysayers of immersion programs—at least the ones quoted in this film—warn about the United States becoming a Tower of Babel, or that learning other languages is a waste of tax dollars when children should be learning English. But what this film shows, mostly with statistics and interviews with experts, is that kids who continue academic learning of their mother tongue learn better English, perform better academically overall, and are much less likely to drop out of school. There’s also a huge distinction between speaking another language at home and learning that language academically. Students who have oral bilingual skills are doubling their proficiency if they learn their native language academically instead of just informally. And children whose mother tongue is English benefit academically from early bilingual education, too. They’ve acquired language skills early in life that will be sought-after when they enter the workforce.

The film makes great arguments—illustrated by lovable kids and their earnest families—for why bilingual education should be a priority in the United States as it is in other countries. The film uses interesting quotes about immigration, English-only legislation, and education against eye-catching graphics. A segment of educators talking about the languages spoken in their school systems, animated onto a map of the United States, was an especially interesting visual.

From a feminist viewpoint, it’s impossible to know why the filmmakers chose to follow three boys and only one girl. Surely they had their reasons, but it would have been nice to see the experience of a Latina or African American girl, especially since the education achievement gap is currently skewed for both ethnic groups, on top of the achievement gap between girls and boys.

Regardless, Speaking in Tongues is a great film that focuses on the benefits of being bilingual without delving into other, potentially more sensitive political issues like immigration, racism and xenophobia, all of which intersect with English-only politics.

Written by: Hannah Moulton Belec, August 5th 2010