Bilingual Education Pays Off, New Documentary Says

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Editor’s Note: To date, 30 states have passed English-only laws, and many American are skeptical of bilingual education because they want their children to learn in English, not Chinese or Spanish. "Speaking in Tongues," the latest documentary by Bay Area filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, sheds light on the cognitive and developmental value of learning in two languages at a young age. The film follows four diverse children as they become bilingual in San Francisco public schools. Speaking in Tongues, subtitled in Chinese or Spanish, can be streamed on the PBS website till October 15. Jarmel spoke with NAM Education Reporter Rupa Dev.

What inspired you to make this documentary? 

We are parents of children in the public school system in San Francisco. [Learning a] language was something we couldn’t give our kids at home, so we looked for language-immersion schools for our sons.

Ten years ago, when we told our family and friends that we were sending our older son to a Chinese- language school, people either said, “Hmm, interesting,” or “Why Chinese?”

We realized that if we sent our kid to the French-American school, nobody would have batted an eye.

Four years later, when his younger brother started at the same Chinese-immersion school, people said, “Wow, that’s so great. He’s going to have so many opportunities.” Same school. Same family. Same program. So the world had really shifted in those four years.

How did you select the four students and their families who are profiled in "Speaking in Tongues"?

At our kids’ Chinese-immersion school, we met all these different families [of varying backgrounds] and began to hear their stories. We visited a lot of classrooms, principals and teachers. Three of the four kids profiled are learning Chinese. The other kid is learning Spanish; he’s from an immigrant family and his parents never went to school.

All the kids and families are in San Francisco because we were following the decision the school board had made to move in the direction of offering every kid the chance to become bilingual by the time they graduate from high school. There were many more wonderful kids that we met and we could have included in the film. The easiest part of the project was finding kids.

Why is it good for our brains to learn in two languages?

When you learn in two languages, you actually pave more pathways in your brain. You are using more of your brain. Kids who learn in two languages from a young age— their brains are more developed, and that has all kinds of payoffs in the future.

Even kids who don’t continue to learn in two languages still have access to those extra pathways. There is also evidence that students who learn in two languages do better in academics because their brains are more flexible.

What are some other payoffs associated with a bilingual learning?

Language is a doorway to culture. So kids who learn how to think in a different language have access to a kind of cross-cultural comfort. In the film, you see Julian, an eighth grader, say about learning Chinese, “It’s part of who I am now.” Even though he is a white, middle-class teenager, he has taken in some of that Chinese-ness.

One of my favorite pieces in the film is when Julian comes back from spending several weeks in China, and he is showing photos to his brothers. He can’t think of the English word for “landscape.” He’s thinking in Chinese, and to me that is a sign that there is some kind of crossover.

He still speaks perfect English, but he can also function in this other system. I think that transition has huge ramifications; there is comfort with diversity and the baseline understanding that there are other people in the world who think differently than we do.

Ironically, when I saw Julian thinking in Chinese and struggling to muster the correct English word for “landscape,” I wondered if some parents would latch onto that moment to argue that students lose English skills when they primarily learn in another language?

I’ve been at dozens of screening, and I just heard that comment for the first time at a screening in Los Angeles.

There are almost 50 years of research on immersion education that clearly and consistently finds kids who learn in two languages will learn English better. Their English achievement will be better than if they only learn in English. That is true for kids whose first language is English and true for kids whose first language isn’t English.

This idea is totally counterintuitive, and I completely understand why parents would be concerned. It doesn’t make sense that your kid’s English will be better if he or she is learning in another language.

But research shows that kids are likely to achieve the academic level in their second language that they have in their first. And kids who are not native English speakers will develop stronger English if they are enrolled in an immersion program over attending a traditional English-only school.

 So why are parents still skeptical?

In San Francisco, kids start taking the State Standard Test in the second grade. Kids in immersion programs don’t test well in the second grade, not because they don’t know the content they are being tested on but because they don’t have the English vocabulary yet.

Parents often flip out when they look at those tests and assume, “My kid is not at grade level.”

But if parents had the patience to wait till fifth grade, their kid will be at grade level in both languages. And by eighth grade, their kid will be above grade level in both languages.

These days schools are pressed to operate with limited funding and resources. Does it cost more to run a bilingual school program rather than a traditional school?

There is a cost at the beginning of the program because schools have to buy new curriculum and materials. And for some schools, staffing changes must happen in order to start an immersion program, and there could be cost associated with that.

But once schools are up and running, a bilingual program costs the same as a traditional one. Kids in language immersion classes learn the same state curriculum that they would learn in an English-only school. It’s just some of their classes aren’t taught in English.

Is bilingual education on the rise?

There is a quiet and growing movement. There are about 350 language-immersion programs in the country that I know of. There’s a lot of discussion around immersion in all kinds of school districts: urban, rural, suburban.

Parent groups are advocating for immersion programs because they want their children to learn in two languages. There is new legislation recently introduced in Washington D.C. [the Providing Resources to Improve Dual Language Education Act] to fund a national dual-immersion initiative. So we’ve seen more attention to dual-immersion programs on every level, from the statewide level to federal to [school] district.

Has the documentary led to any community organizing around advocating for more bilingual education programs?

There are several communities that have held screenings which jump-started initiatives to encourage school board members to open new bilingual programs.

We know of two bilingual programs that opened this fall, and the genesis to start the programs was "Speaking In Tongues." We’re really encouraging people to take the film back to their communities and to have events at their public library, church or PTA. So a conversation about language can happen at the grassroots level.

We really want our film to be in service of moving this idea forward: multilingual education is a good thing for all kids in the U.S.

“Speaking In Tongues” will air on KQED Channel 9, Sunday, September 26, at 6 p.m., and on Thursday, September 30, at 11 p.m. It will also air on KCET in Los Angeles, September 30, at 9 p.m. Visit the “Speaking In Tongues” blog to read the latest new stories and commentaries on the bilingual education and language immersion movement.