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College Level Manual/Guide

College Level Manual/Guide Menu

  1. Introduction to Do You Speak American?
  2. Introduction to Do You Speak American? for College Instructors
  3. Using Do You Speak American? in a classroom
  4. Information on the Units
  5. General resources on the Do You Speak American? Web site
  6. Resources

I. Introduction to Do You Speak American?

To view an introduction to Do You Speak American?, click on the following links:

II. Introduction to Do You Speak American? for College Instructors

 Do You Speak American?, a DVD series with supporting curriculum materials, offers a range of perspectives on the different ways of using language that are represented in U.S. society. These perspectivesinclude the views of linguists and others on such matters as dialects, language ideology, and language change—topics that are central to sociolinguistics, the study of language in its social setting. Fundamental to this discipline is the understanding that language is dynamic. Careful examination of language use counters some common beliefs.

Language as a Dynamic System

Sociolinguists study language dynamics: how and why language changes over time and how and why it varies from region to region, group to group, individual to individual, and situation to situation. Their focus is on the connections between social life and speech. Sociolinguistics is a field with a solid theoretical grounding, yet many of its findings can be understood without formal linguistics training.

Language Myths

Although language plays a vital role in daily life, its inner workings are not obvious. Some common beliefs about language processes are challenged by researchers’ findings. For example, many people assume that change in language is practically always for the worse. Sociolinguists, on the other hand, see language change as an interesting phenomenon and inquire into the reasons for it. Their research has shown that some factors in change are due to the internal structure of the language itself and that others are social: Groups of speakers speak in ways that distinguish them from others.

Language myths abound. A common one is that there are some people who do not speak a dialect. The term dialect, however, has both a non-technical and a technical meaning, and the differences in meanings give rise to misunderstanding. In its non-technical sense (the one many people use), a dialect is an unprestigious, vernacular variety of a language. But linguists use the term dialect to refer to any variety of a language, and they point out that it is impossible to speak English—or any language—without speaking some particular dialect of the language. In this technical sense, everyone speaks a dialect—although some dialects are more often remarked upon than others.

A second language myth is that some dialects are not grammatical. Linguists, though, use the term grammatical to mean regular and patterned. All dialects are indeed grammatical in this sense, since they each have their own patterns (linguists call them rules) of sound and syntax. No dialect is haphazard; all are systematic. A third myth is that people who speak certain dialects have tried to learn mainstream Standard English but have failed. This is not true: Children learn to speak the variety of language that is spoken by the people around them, whether that is Standard English or one of the many vernacular varieties of English. A final myth is that speaking a dialect limits what one is able to express. In reality, all dialects are full versions of their language, with full expressive potential. Some vernacular dialects, in fact, have features that express meanings that are more cumbersome to convey in Standard English.

III. Using Do You Speak American? in the Classroom

The curriculum that accompanies Do You Speak American? consists of five thematic units, each containing extensive background information, a discussion guide, and activities and assessments for students. Any components of a unit can be used as the instructor sees fit. The curriculum is suitable for undergraduate courses in a range of disciplines, including introductory linguistics; introductory anthropology; American culture, language, and literature; African American history and culture; Chicano history and culture; educational diversity; school and society; literacy; American sociology; and speech and communication.

Do You Speak American? is closed captioned for the hearing impaired.

To make the units useful for different courses, many of the ideas are presented in a somewhat simplified way. Instructors may wish to further develop certain ideas. Each unit is likely to require some adaptation to suit a particular course or topic. Both instructors and students who want to learn more about a topic are encouraged to consult the additional resources linked or cited in the units. Educators should view all video in advance of classroom use as some clips contain racially-charged language. See more detailed explanations within the various units.

The DVDs and the Web Site

Do You Speak American? is available on video as well as three web-enabled DVDs from Films for the Humanities at 1-800-257-5126. Do You Speak American? is packaged as three 1-hour WebDVDs. The DVD technology allows the relevant links to the DYSA synced to the video to be viewed seamlessly by computer users. The series can be played on any DVD player, but taking advantage of all the features requires a computer with DVD-ROM drive and Internet. For WebDVD users information will appear at the bottom of the screen from time to time indicating that related Web content is available. Clicking on the information will open a Web browser and take users automatically to a specific page on the DYSA Web site. After viewing this additional information, the viewer can restart the video from the point of interruption.

The Do You Speak American? Web site contains activities, essays, maps, video clips, audio clips, and links to further information on language in the United States.

All of the curricula is available free on the Internet. In addition to the online information that is linked from the DVDs, the Do You Speak American? Web site contains activities, essays, maps, video clips, audio clips, and links to further information on language in the United States.

The Thematic Units

Although the DVDs can be played straight through, the flexibility inherent to DVD technology allows instructors to be selective in what they show to their classes. Taking advantage of this flexibility, the video materials can be adapted for presentation in five thematic units:

Each thematic unit incorporates about 20 to 30 minutes of video clips from Do You Speak American?. Some of the clips are used in more than one unit. The units also include discussion questions, student activities, and links to additional information. A range of activities and discussion questions is included so that items can be selected to suit different courses. Ideas or topics that are applicable to more than one theme may appear in more than one unit.

The units contain a number of hyperlinks. Links in the “Key Terms” box take the viewer to glossary items found in the viewers guide. Links in the main part of the unit take the viewer to essays, activities, or more information found on the Do You Speak American? Web site or other relevant Web sites (e.g., the Linguistic Society of America ). The hyperlinks serve a number of purposes. Some supplement information presented in the film. Others offer alternative views to those expressed in the film. Although the Do You Speak American? Web site contains more resources than are linked from the units, the links provided are the ones most directly relevant to them.

Preparing to Teach

It is important that instructors consider the make-up of a class in preparing lessons based on the units provided. Language and language experiences can be intensely personal and can be closely tied to issues of ethnicity, gender, and personal style. Students may thus disagree with some of the perspectives contained in the video, and they may also disagree with each other in classroom discussion, especially in diverse classes. While personal experiences are an important source of understanding and explanation, instructors are encouraged to focus discussion on the scientific knowledge detailed in the units.

IV. Information on the Units

Each of the five thematic units thataccompany Do You Speak American? is designed to yield one or more self-contained lessons. Ultimately, all of the units are intrinsically linked. Combining two or more of them is likely to lead to a more complete understanding of language variation. Descriptions of the units appear below, with suggestions for some ways to combine them. Each unit can be expanded or condensed to fit the time available.

Perspectives on Written & Spoken English

This unit investigates the question “What is Standard English?” It indicates different approaches to answering this question and suggests that the differences between written and spoken language complicate the matter. This unit is an excellent choice as an introduction, for it provides background for the other units. It is recommended that instructors examine this unit even if they do not teach it. This unit pairs well with any of the others, but it is particularly effective if it precedes either the African American English or the Spanish and Chicano English unit.

Major Regional Dialects

This unit examines how people speak in different areas of the country. It looks at historical reasons for the existence of regional dialects and for their persistence evenin the face of today’s ease of travel and the omnipresence of television and other media sources. This unit offers a complementary perspective to either the African American English or the Spanish and Chicano English unit, which present information on social—rather than regional—dialects.

African American English

This unit examines the status of African American English in modern American culture and different theories about the dialect’s origin. The video shows the speech of a wide range of African Americans, from hip-hop artists to professors and lawyers. Pairing this unit with Spanish and Chicano English supports thematic exploration of social dialects. This unit can be contrasted with Major Regional Dialects, whichfocuses on location rather than ethnicity. It also can be effectively followed by Communicative Choices and Linguistic Style, which investigates the reasons individuals speak as they do and the consequences of using various styles.

Spanish and Chicano English

This unit examines the increasing influence of Hispanic immigrants on the culture and language of the United States. It examines the role both of Spanish and of the distinctive variety of English known as Chicano English spoken by some people of Hispanic heritage. This unit can be paired with African American English to further investigate the theme of social dialects. It can be contrasted with Major Regional Dialects. It can also be followed by Communicative Choices and Linguistic Style.

Communicative Choices &  Linguistic Style

This unit examines the link between individuals’ social identity and their speech, considering the conscious and unconscious factors that shape both. The unit is perhaps most effective when paired with one or both of the units on social dialects: African American English and Spanish and Chicano English.

General Resources on the Do You Speak American? Web site

These resources offer background information for instructors and students.

  • Baron, Dennis. “Language in its Social Setting.”

    Background information on a number of questions, including: “Will e-mail ruin English?” “What is Ebonics?” “Why do women and men speak differently?” and “What happens when speakers of different languages come into contact?”

  • Baron, Dennis. “Hooked on Ebonics.”

    Examines the Oakland Ebonics controversy from a linguistic perspective. Considers the issue of whether Ebonics is a language or a dialect, as well as why Ebonics is not sloppy or uneducated speech. Also examines who speaks Ebonics and for what reasons.

  • Chambers, Jack. “Talk the Talk.”

    Examines the role that television has played in shaping American English since the 1950s and why this influence is not as strong as people believe it is.

  • Eble, Connie. “Sociolinguistics Basics.”

    Begins with the assumption that language is not homogeneous in any community or even any individual. Article discusses how and why language varies in different groups, areas, and times.

  • Finegan, Edward. “What is ‘Correct’ Language?”

    Examines the notion of grammatical correctness in a variety of contexts and summarizes different approaches to and perspectives on language.

  • Fought, Carmen “Watch Your Language: What does Your Speech Reveal?”

    Examines the information we divulge about ourselves every time we speak including where we are from and our ethnic background. Article also includes a glossary with definitions of common linguistic terms.

  • Gordon, Matthew. “Land Without an Accent.” A.K.A. “Straight Talking from the Heartland.”

    Identifies some regional stereotypes and discusses the American misconception that Midwesterners speak the one standard English or do not have a dialect at all.

  • Wolfram, Walt. “How Language Change Occurs.”

    Discusses how and why languages change and reasons change may spread.

VI. Resources


  • This Web site shows the results of a survey of North American English that looked at regional variation in the use and pronunciation of more than a hundred words.
  • The Web site for the American Dialect Society shows the results of the organization’s annual word(s) of the year vote.
  • The Web site of the Center for Applied Linguistics features information about Ebonics, language in education, bilingualism, and language learning.
  • This Web site, created and maintained by linguist William Labov and his associates, enables viewers to hear actual speech samples from across the United States, including examples of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.
  • The Web site of the Linguistic Society of America offers information about linguistics—the scientific study of language—and answers to frequently asked questions about language.
  • The Web site of the North Carolina Language and Life Project, maintained by linguist Walt Wolfram, offers pictures and speech samples from people in different areas of North Carolina and vignettes from video documentaries about language and life in The Old North State.
  • Ed Online Web from Thirteen/WNET Each month, Thirteen/WNET New York creates a monthly theme on its website for educators and students, Ed Online ( January will feature Do You Speak American? with a links to the program website and two original learning activities: one for the Afterschool community on the language of Hip-Hop and the other engages teens with activities that teach the evolution of teen slang throughout pop culture.
  • Rethinking Schools Online  F. Arturo Rosales. Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1997. A comprehensive account of the struggle of Mexican Americans to secure and protect their civil rights, starting with the U.S. invasion of Mexico and subsequent annexation of most of what is now the U.S. Southwest. The book is designed to accompany a PBS series that is available on video.


  • Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. Language and Gender.New York: Cambridge, 2003.
    This book offers an insightful look into the relationships among gender, sex and language.
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in The United States .London/New York: Routledge, 1977.
    Attitudes toward accents are institutionalized in courts and perpetuated in the media and at work. Those whose accents are not considered prestigious may suffer discrimination.
  • Niedzielski, Nancy A., and Dennis R. Preston. Folk Linguistics. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.
    This book is one of the first to merge what people in the general population uphold as linguistic truths and what linguists believe about language.
  • Rickford, John R., and Russell J. Rickford. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York: John Wiley, 2000.
    This engaging and comprehensive account of Black English (African American English or AAE) includes discussions of the artistic forms associated with AAE, pronunciation and grammatical patterns, the history of AAE, AAE and education, and language and identity. This is a must-read for anyone interested in getting the real story on African American English—what it is, what it isn’t, and how it got to be the way it is.
  • Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin that Talk: African American Language and Culture. London/New York: Routledge, 2000.
    This volume brings together Smitherman’s writings on the interrelationships among language, education and culture in African America.
  • Trudgill, Peter. Sociolinguistics: An introduction to Language and Society,4th ed. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin, 2001.
    This new edition of a classic text explores how the way we talk is influenced by our class, sex and ethnic background, and how it affects the way we are perceived by others.
  • Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English: Dialects and Variation, 2nd ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
    Intended for readers with little or no background in linguistic science, this college-level text includes chapters on the range of regional, social, and ethnic variation in American English; language and gender; style shifting; the history of English in America; and the general nature of language variation. The second edition has a chapter on African American English.
  • Wolfram, Walt et al. Dialects in Schools and Communities. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1999.
    Written for educators with little or no linguistics background. This book includes chapters on how dialects can influence oral, written, and reading proficiency as well as the responsibilities of teachers in addressing the linguistic needs of students. It presents a clear and easy-to-follow argument for why language difference is not language deficiency.

The Do You Speak American? curriculum was made possible, in part, by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett


Rosalind P.

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Corporation of New York