Documentary Screening Sparks Dialogue on Bilingual Education

In the U.S., 30 states abide by an “English Only” law, mandating that public schools instruct students solely in English. In San Francisco, several public schools are making a statement against the idea that students perform better if they are taught in one language. Bilingual Immersion Programs, which completely immerse and teach students in a foreign language, exist sparingly throughout California and the U.S., but for San Francisco, it’s becoming something of regularity.

To learn more about this, the School of Education Vision 2014 Visibility Group held a free screening of the documentary film, Speaking in Tongues, on Thursday, April 8th. Filmmakers and local San Franciscans, Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, attended the film screening for a panel discussion following the one-hour showing.

The film, which follows four San Francisco students in Chinese and Spanish Immersion Programs, was awarded the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival Audience Award. The message of the film lies in the idea that “being bilingual can be a national asset,” according to the official website, and questions whether in this world and age, “Is knowing one language enough?”

Researchers have argued that students who are taught in their primary language have a higher of chance of academic success. For those whose first language is English, it’s a great benefit as an adult to know two languages. According to the film, the best time to learn a second language is before age 13. It also takes 5-8 years to develop a language academically.

However, Dr. Noah Borrero, assistant professor in teacher education for USF’s School of Education said that people must be careful not to just focus on the academic benefits of an immersion program. Such programs also offer the opportunity for children to connect with a community. “Language is about connecting with your family and who you are,” Borrero said.

Filmmaker Marcia Jarmel said that she and her husband realized that in making the film, the program allowed parents who had lost their culture’s language through assimilation to revive the language for their children. “What we began to see is that there’s much a bigger story to tell,” she said.

Currently San Francisco is working with universities to update the system, since bilingual immersion programs only exists mostly for Pre-K to 5th grade. “We need better programs to prepare the teachers,” Kevin Chavez, an administrator from the Dual Language Immersion Pathway program of the SF Unified School District said. It’s “a lot of investment, and definitely we’re not where we need to be …we’re trying to figure it out on a large scale.”

To learn more about the film, visit

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