The world is a classroom: "Speaking in Tongues" takes a close look at a Mandarin language-learner in an SF public school, as well as students in Cantonese- and Spanish dual-immersion environments.

SFIFF52: Jarmel and Schneider's "Speaking in Tongues"

Susan Gerhard April 25, 2009

The making of most documentary films is an immersive experience. So it’s only natural that Bay Area filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, who’ve been working together as Patchworks Films for years, turn their video cameras to subjects in which they are already immersed. (It was childbirth after they had kids in Born in the U.S.A.; it was Orthodox Jewish life after an old friend’s religious conversion in The Return of Sarah’s Daughters.) That their latest project, Speaking in Tongues, is about immersion itself is only a coincidence. It just so happens the particular kind of education their children are receiving—Cantonese-English dual-language immersion at Alice Fong Yu—is one of the pioneering projects of the San Francisco Unified School District. The film they premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival this weekend and next (Sun., April 26, 3:15 p.m., Sat., May 2, 3:30 p.m., Thurs., May 7, 2:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki) follows the stories of four public school children (not their own) studying Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish along with their English. At a time when the U.S. border anxieties are at odds with the need for greater international cooperation, the film looks at what it means to give children the opportunity to become fluent in a second language through public school. The film plays in the Documentary Competition.

SF360: When did you first encounter language immersion education? When did it occur to you to create a film about it?

Marcia Jarmel/Ken Schneider: In the spring of 2001, we began telling friends and family of our decision to enroll our older son at Alice Fong Yu. Inevitably, we heard one of two responses: a quizzical look followed by, ‘Hmmmmm—interesting,’ or, more simply, ‘Why Chinese?’

Four years later, when we told friends about our younger son’s enrollment at AFY, all replied, ‘Oh, how wonderful!’ What had changed? Not us. Not the school. The world had changed, and with it, America’s view of language. The subsequent discussions we had with friends provided the seeds of what became our current documentary film, Speaking in Tongues.

SF360: What were the challenges of filming inside school(s); what were the benefits?

Jarmel/Schneider: Our story starts in the classroom, where our characters are having an unusual and provocative experience. Yet filming in a school also has its limits, as the structure of a school day makes it difficult to get close to characters. To deepen our characters’ stories, we needed to go home with them, and film them with their families and in their communities.

Some challenges of shooting in a school are predictable: Some teachers are shy, some children mug for the camera, some principals are initially resistant to the idea of filming, which they feel will disrupt classrooms. We always try to build relationships before shooting, and spend plenty of time in an environment, rather than the news crew style of parachuting in, getting the footage, and taking off.

SF360: I’d love if you could delineate a little about the differences (where you see them) between the old model ‘bilingual’ education and what the San Francisco schools are doing with ‘dual immersion.’

Jarmel/Schneider: San Francisco has both bilingual and dual immersion programs. Many people do not realize that all such programs share a common goal: for all students to learn English. There is debate about the best way to realize this. In ‘traditional’ bilingual education, English Language Learners (non-native English speakers) are segregated in a class in which they receive instruction both in their home language and in English. The goal is to transition them out of bilingual education and into mainstream, English-only classrooms.

In a dual immersion class, there is a mix of native English speakers and non-native speakers. Depending on the school, they receive from 50-90 percent of their instruction in the ‘target language,’ and the remainder in English. Counterintuitively, researchers have found that kids learning English in these environments learn English better than their counterparts in English-only classes. The most current data and brain research suggests that these kids benefit from continuing to develop their mother tongue while achieving mastery of English. Meanwhile, they are learning side-by-side with native English speakers who are also becoming bilingual.

SF360: The teachers in your film are incredibly charismatic. Did you do much scouting, and/or ‘casting?’

Jarmel/Schneider: One great discovery in making this film was just how many wonderful educators are working in the public schools. We have visited many classrooms in our lives, and have a sense for which teachers can fill up the screen. We also seek characters in whose stories are embedded the issues we are exploring. It’s always character first, information second—or third—or fourth. For example, Gina Chow, who teaches Cantonese immersion to kindergartners, is one of the pioneers of the field. She has taught children from the first year Alice Fong Yu—the nation’s first Chinese immersion school—opened its doors.

SF360: You raised interesting points about the shifting perspective toward language in the United States, with a quote from our new president about encouraging citizens to learn (I think) Spanish. Do you think there’s going to be some changes nationwide in the push toward English-only?

Jarmel/Schneider: It’s hard to predict national policy, but we have seen this landscape change in the few years since we started filming. The debate around language produces strange bedfellows. The Department of Defense has poured huge resources into creating a kindergarten through high school pipeline for language acquisition in Portland, Oregon, focusing on ‘strategic languages.’ And opposition comes from surprising corners; new immigrant families often fear that their children’s English will suffer if they attend immersion programs.

The English-only movement has framed this as an either/or issue: either you learn English only or you don’t succeed in our society. Advocates for bilingualism see it as a both/and: master two languages simultaneously, and we all reap the benefits.

SF360: Have we come a long way since 1994, when California was trying to eliminate non-citizen immigrants from the educational system?

Jarmel/Schneider: We don’t feel capable of answering this one…but we have found that many in the English-only movement are conflating the idea of becoming bilingual with their concerns about immigration, our southern border, and what they see as the loss of American identity.

SF360: San Francisco is expanding its language-immersion programs. Your film shows feedback of various kinds, but I wondered if you can you quantify: Is there, on the whole, satisfaction with the new schools? And, related: I saw some critical points raised by Spanish-language-speaking families in the film. Has there been enough time to gather statistics on how these programs work or don’t work for the native speakers of those languages? Or: information on how the different language schools are doing compared to one another?

Jarmel/Schneider: There are huge waiting lists at most of these programs in the SF public schools. The school district continues to open new programs, and is trying to create more slots in middle and high schools. This speaks to the popularity of these programs. That said, both African American and new immigrant students are underrepresented in virtually all the city’s immersion programs. I think enough information about the benefits of immersion hasn’t gotten out to those communities.

Dual immersion remains controversial, and researchers in the U.S. and Canada have been studying it for nearly 40 years. There is compelling data that English Language Learners, if they remain in these programs through 7th grade (the longer the better), they will equal and/or exceed the performance of their counterparts in English-only programs—and they will do it in two languages.

SF360: Your company, Patchwork films, has a long resume of films on potentially divisive cultural topics ranging from childbirth in the U.S. to traditional religion to war. Could you offer one or two areas where you think this film fits with or departs from your previous work?

Jarmel/Schneider: We say that our films are largely autobiographical, but they are not actually about us. They tell stories of the lives that have intersected with our own, usually involving people we respect and love. And our films often start, quite literally, at home. When an old friend became part of an Orthodox religious community, we filmed in her new community. When we became parents, we explored the culture of childbirth in America. And when we became involved in a language immersion school, we began thinking deeply about the local and global implications of becoming bilingual.

Like our other films, we are exploring social issues through the intimate, verite-style portrayals of characters. Inside the characters’ lives are embedded the issues that interest us. Our four kids each represent a distinctive aspect of this story:

[They are:]

Durrell Laury, an African American kindergartener from a single parent home in public housing, whose mom understood that putting him at Starr King Elementary’s Mandarin immersion program would open up possibilities in his life

Second generation Chinese American, Kelly Wong, whose parents lost the Cantonese she is now mastering. In 7th grade she has command of Mandarin and Cantonese and can communicate with her grandparents in a way their own children can’t.

Jason Patiño, son of new immigrants, and the first person in his family ever to attend school at all. After testing above grade level in both English and Spanish, and earning a 4.0 last semester, he hopes to attend the University of California at Berkeley.

Julian Enis, a middle class Caucasian, who has studied Chinese in an immersion school since kindergarten. His Chinese is so advanced now that he will take the advanced placement test as a high school sophomore and can feel at home as the guest of a Mandarin speaking family in Beijing.

SF360: Can you tell me more about the scholar Ling-chi Wang, who you use in the film? He’s the one pointing out the richness of multiculturalism in SF through the restaurant sign written in Chinese advertising Mexican food.

Jarmel/Schneider: Ling-chi Wang is an amazing guy—a musician, ancient Middle Eastern languages scholar, historian—and a civil rights activist. He ran the ethnic studies department at Cal for years, helped found Chinese for Affirmative Action, and drove the engine behind the landmark Lau v. Nichols case which created the legal mandate for bilingual education in the mid-1970s (a story worth its own film—check it out on Wikipedia). In our story, he plays a pivotal role. It is he who spearheaded the resolution that we documented the SFUSD passing, to offer all public school students the opportunity to become bilingual and biliterate by high school graduation.

SF360: How big was your crew in the production and post-production of the film? Did you have a favorite piece of equipment?

Jarmel/Schneider: Our typical crew is a crew of three: Marcia produces and directs; Ken records sound and co-directs; and we have a cinematographer: either Andy Black, Vicente Franco, or Dan Krauss. When Ken hurt his knee, we hired a sound recordist and thus had a crew of four.

Our post-production team: Ken edits, Marcia produces, Lorna MacMillan associate produces, and Tupac Saavedra, our assistant editor, comes in as needed.

Our new camera, the Panasonic HVX-200 is our current favorite piece of gear.

SF360: Any major ‘lessons learned’ from your filming experiences prior to this, or during?

Jarmel/Schneider: One important lesson—we missed stuff. We didn’t hear about important events in time to shoot, and in one case, we were grappling with our camera’s unfamiliar technology and we missed a key moment in a school board meeting. I spent numerous hours trying to recapture that lost moment, using a web-only version of that same moment—until conceding that we didn’t have it. And then we move forward. The lesson—we make films with the footage available to us. And in filming over time, we will both miss moments and then discover other ways of telling that same story.

We have had a transcendent experience working with sound designer Richard Beggs, who usually works on feature films. He tore apart all of Ken’s painstaking sound work, re-mixed all of our music, and elevated the film several notches. We think that the film will feel different, particularly in the theatrical screenings, as a result of his work, and we will never think about sound the same again.