I caught the documentary Speaking In Tongues on PBS a few days ago, which explores the politics and practicalities of multilingual early education in the USA today, through the lives of four school kids in California whose parents have enrolled them in full immersion schools where most subjects, from math to social sciences, are taught in Chinese or Spanish.
The film’s four subjects include an African American boy attending Mandarin immersion who strikes up conversations in department stores with older Chinese speakers, and whose mother believes her son’s language skills will offer him more opportunities in life; a Mexican American boy attending Spanish immersion who already speaks perfect English but whose parents speak only Spanish; a Chinese American girl attending Cantonese immersion who can communicate with her Cantonese-speaking grandmother while her own parents have lost their Chinese through assimilation; and a white teenage boy attending Mandarin immersion who once asked his parents if he was Chinese, and who travels to China in the film to further his linguistic and cultural immersion.
It’s an even-handed, well-constructed look at an issue which is obviously close to home for many of us. The film argues that early multilingual education helps children even beyond language skills, stimulating cognitive development and improving abilities in other fields such as math and music. Also, since languages are most easily learned before the age of 13, it argues that US society shoots itself in the foot economically by purging second languages from early education and then investing millions of dollars in quasi-teaching second languages to college kids, even as the globalized US economy, as well as the national security state, are desperate to recruit people who speak multiple languages.
Obviously I agree with these notions. Personally I grew up with Mandarin at home, English in the school yard and on TV, and French immersion in public elementary school in Montreal. Multilingualism always seemed perfectly natural to me and only enriched my life experiences, never causing any confusion or overload which some parents are concerned about. Parents who are anxious that their kids aren’t learning enough English if they attend immersion programs are, in my opinion, misinformed about how language skills develop.
Anyway, check out Speaking In Tongues if you’re interested. The film is more exploratory than didactic — e.g. it doesn’t explicitly name the white racism underlying “English only” politics, though it doesn’t really need to — but it’s a nice look at multilingualism and immersion as they play out in the lives of four kids and their families.