About the Issue
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 bicultural and bilingual 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?