College Level Manual/Guide Menu
To view an introduction to Do You Speak American?, click on the following links:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These resources offer background information for instructors and students.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
Examines the notion of grammatical correctness in a variety of contexts and summarizes different approaches to and perspectives on language.
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.
Identifies some regional stereotypes and discusses the American misconception that Midwesterners speak the one standard English or do not have a dialect at all.
Discusses how and why languages change and reasons change may spread.
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.
William and Flora Hewlett
© COPYRIGHT 2005 MACNEIL/LEHRER PRODUCTIONS. All Rights Reserved.