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Dual-Language Students Make Case for Bilingualism in Documentary

Durrell Laury was a 5-year-old African-American boy living in public housing when he began kindergarten in a Mandarin dual-language program at a San Francisco elementary school.

His mother, who had decided putting her son in the program would be "a way out and also a way in," said he was the only child from their central San Francisco neighborhood to sign up.

Before he had even finished his first year in the Mandarin program—where nearly all of his instruction was in Chinese—Durrell's language skills were strong enough to approach a group of native Chinese speakers in a department store to converse about what they were buying and to ask them what their favorite color was. The adults were blown away by this young African-American boy who could communicate so well with them, said his mother. One of them, his mother recalled, told Durrell he could be the ambassador to China because he spoke Chinese better than her grandchildren.

Durrell is among four dual-language students in San Francisco whose stories are chronicled in the hour-long documentary called "Speaking in Tongues," which makes a convincing case for learning a second language from the earliest years of school.

There's also 5th grader Jason, the son of Mexican immigrants, who is mastering academic Spanish while also polishing his English. Julian, a middle school student, who dreams of going to China after nine years of Mandarin immersion. And Kelly, a 5th grader in a Cantonese dual-language program with English-dominant parents who hope her language skills will help deepen the family's linguistic and cultural identity.

The film—directed by Bay Area filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider—was released in 2009 and has become a professional development and advocacy tool for language educators. Though the documentary has been out for four years, I've just discovered it and wanted to share it with folks who may not have come across it.

While the filmmakers definitely have a point of view that heavily favors dual-language and immersion programs, they do a balanced job of presenting the concerns and skepticism of some parents—particularly immigrant parents—who worry their children won't develop strong English skills. There's also a dose of "English-only" sentiment sprinkled throughout, such as archival footage of Ron Unz, who financed the effort to curtail bilingual education in California 15 years ago.

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