Do You Speak American? is primarily concerned with defining what varieties of language constitute American, who speaks these varieties, and how people view these varieties. All of these are crucial questions to sociolinguistics, which is the study of language in its social setting. One of the fundamental tenets of sociolinguistics is that language is dynamic: It changes over time, and at any given time it exhibits variation between groups and within groups. Sociolinguists seek to understand the reasons language varies from region to region, group to group, individual to individual, and situation to situation as well as why language changes over time. They study the connections between who we are, how we live, and how we speak. Though a relatively new science, sociolinguistics already has a rich scholarly tradition, which is exemplified in Do You Speak American?
Despite its scholarly basis, many of the findings of sociolinguistics can be understood without linguistics training. We all interact using language on a daily basis. We have all heard comments like “Kids today don’t talk like we did” or “Those people speak with an accent.” We have all noticed that language changes over time and that some groups and individuals do not speak as we do. Thus we have a wealth of experience that helps us understand some of the findings of sociolinguistics.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that some common beliefs about language are challenged by researchers’ findings. Although language plays a vital role in our lives, people seldom think carefully about its inner workings. 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, finding that some factors concern the internal structure of the language and that others are social, with groups of speakers distinguishing themselves from others.
Americans tend to subscribe to a number of myths about language. A common one is that there are people who do not speak a dialect. Linguists, however, use the terms dialect to refer to any variety of a language, and they point out that it is impossible to speak English without speaking some particular dialect of English. Everyone speaks a dialect—though some are prestigious and some are stigmatized. A second common myth is that some dialects are not grammatical. Linguists use the term grammatical to mean rule-governed and patterned. All dialects are indeed grammatical in this sense, since they each have their own rules of sound and syntax. No dialect is haphazard; all are systematic. A third myth is that people who speak certain dialects do so because they are incapable of learning mainstream Standard English. In fact, dialects persist for many reasons, one of the most important being that ways of speaking are closely bound up with personal identity. 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 fact, many dialects have features that express meanings that are difficult to convey in Standard English.
Do You Speak American? is relevant to both the language arts and the social studies curricula. More information on the specific NCTE standards that are addressed by Do You Speak American? is found below, but issues of language and culture are closely entwined, and a sociolinguistic approach can make each more understandable.
The curriculum that accompanies Do You Speak American? is meant to be understandable and enlightening to people who have no formal training in linguistics. The five thematic units are each accompanied by extensive background information, a discussion guide, and activities and assessments for students. More on these aids is found below.
Do You Speak American? is closed captioning for the hearing impaired.
To make the units accessible to people with no linguistics background (and to high school students), many of the ideas are presented in a simplified way. It is important to keep this in mind in preparing and teaching, since students may wish to know more than is presented in the units. Students who are interested in learning more about a topic should be encouraged to consult the additional resources that are linked or cited in the unit. 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.
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 curriculum is available free on the Internet. The units included make use of both video and online materials. This makes Do You Speak American? an ideal resource for incorporating student-led learning and encouraging individual academic exploration. In addition to the information linked from the video, the Do You Speak American website contains activities, essays, maps, video clips, audio clips, and links to other information on language in the U.S. The Web site offers a number of useful previewing activities and essays that are ideal for jigsaw-style cooperative learning.
The flexibility inherent to DVD technology also allows teachers to be selective in what they show to their classes. Taking advantage of this flexibility are five thematic units: Perspectives on Written & Spoken English ; Major Regional Dialects; African American English ; Spanish & Chicano English ; and Communicatve Choices & Linguistic Style. These thematic units incorporate about 20 to 30 minutes of video clips (some videos clips are used in more than one unit). All the units address at least two of the National Council of Teachers of English standards, on which state standards are often based. The units include discussion questions, student activities, instructional tools, and links to additional information. The activities provided are meant to be adaptable for different levels of students and different teaching and learning styles. They are directed to the teacher and provide ideas for getting the students to respond to what they see and hear. The discussion questions, on the other hand, are addressed to the student, although it is still up to the teacher to decide which discussion questions will be used and in what manner. The activities are labeled with an “approximate time” indication; however, the actual time will vary depending on how you choose to use it in the class and the level of students. Most units contain more exercises and questions than can reasonably be addressed given the curricular constraints teachers face. Teachers should use their own judgment in determining which activities will be most useful in their classes.
Some of the activities found in the version of the units for college instructors may be suitable for upper-level high school students. Again, teachers are in the best position to determine which activities are best suited to their classes. Since some ideas are found in more than one unit, some activities also appear in more than one unit, so that teachers have easy access to all materials that might inform a lesson.
The units contain a number of hyperlinks. Links in the “Key Terms” box take you to glossary items found in the viewers guide. Links in the main part of the unit take you to essays, activities, or more information found on the Do You Speak American? Web site or the Web sites of researchers or linguistic organizations (e.g., The Linguistic Society of America). The hyperlinks serve a number of purposes. Some supplement information presented in the film. Others offer competing views to those in the film. Though the Do You Speak American? Web site contains more resources than are linked from the units, the links provided are the ones that should be most useful to educators and interesting to students.
Support is also provided for teachers who wish to show one or all of the videos straight through (though the thematic approach offers more activities, more background information, and a more focused unit). For straight-through viewing, it is still recommended that the video be stopped and ideas be discussed along the way. Standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of English and National Council for the Social Studies standards are more easily addressed through the thematic units than the straight-through viewing method. To find NCSS standards, go this Web site.
Language and language experiences can be intensely personal. They can be closely tied to issues of ethnicity, gender, and personal style. It is important, then, to consider the make-up of your class in preparing to teach these units. The video contains perspectives that students may disagree with. Students with different backgrounds may also disagree with each other in class. While personal experiences are an important source of understanding and explanation, teachers are encouraged to focus the discussion on the scientific knowledge detailed in the units.
Five thematic units accompany Do You Speak American? Each of these units is designed to yield a self-contained lesson. Ultimately, all of the units are intrinsically linked. A more complete understanding of language varieties in the United States can be attained by combining two or more of them. Descriptions of the units are presented below, as are suggestions for some ways to combine units. Though teachable in less time, each unit contains enough material that it can easily be expanded to fill a week’s worth of instructional time.
This unit investigates the question “What is considered Standard English?” It includes different approaches to answering this question and examples of how written and spoken language differ. This is an excellent introductory unit and provide background for the other units. It is recommended that teachers examine this unit even if they do not teach it. This unit pairs well with any of the other units but is particularity effective if it precedes either the African American English or Spanish and Chicano English unit.
This unit examines the different ways people speak in different areas of the country. It also examines the historical reasons why regional dialects exist and why they persist in spite of the increased 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 AAE in modern American culture and different theories about the origin of AAE. It shows a wide range of speech from African Americans, This unit can be paired with Spanish and Chicano English to further investigate the theme of social dialects. It 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 we speak the way we do and the consequences of using certain styles.
This unit examines the increasing influence of Hispanic immigrants on the culture and language on the United States. It examines both the role of Spanish and 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, whichfocuses on location rather than ethnicity. It also can be effectively followed by Communicative Choices and Linguistic Style, which investigates why we speak the way we do. Use of the term “Chicano” is not always one that is acceptable for folks of Spanish origin language communities. It also designates Mexican-American, and not, for example, Puerto Ricans. Additionally, the term is misapplied to being representative of ‘immigrants’ as many members of Spanish origin language communities did not immigrate, their land was conquered by Americans.
This unit examines the link between who we are, or who we wish to be, and our speech. It examines the conscious and unconscious factors that shape how we present ourselves through the language we use. This 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.
Do You Speak American? is relevant to a number of the standards spelled out in The Standards for the English Language Arts outlined by the National Council of Teachers of English and in state standards that have built on it:
Standard 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.
General Application: The Perspectives on written and spoken English unit draws attention to the conventions of mainstream American English.
Standard 7. Students use a variety of technological and informational resources (e.g. libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
General Application: All units include exercises that utilize various informational resources.
Standard 8. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
General Application: The primary goal of Do You Speak American? is to make its audience more aware of the rich geographic and social linguistic diversity and the language history of the United States. Along with discussion about variation in linguistic style, the units also emphasize that all speakers share the need to communicate to different audiences through various language styles. From a scientific perspective, all languages and dialects are equal because they are all systematic (rather than random) in structure. This finding has significant social and political implications that are important to discuss.
In addition to these standards concerning the content of the English language arts, Do You Speak American? can serve to enhance students’ understanding of the ways in which various types of media present information on this topic. The units help teachers expand students’ skills by presenting both video and Web-based materials for lessons and assignments.
1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, themselves, and the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary work.
General Application: Through visual and web-based media, Do You Speak American? engages students with both print and non-print texts focusing on cultural diversity in America, contemporary language issues, and the social implications of language use for the individual, the group, and the society.
Do You Speak American? is relevant to a number of Social Studies Standards outlined in themes by the National Council for the Social Studies
1. Culture: Social Studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.
General Application: Do You Speak American? units draw connections between language and cultural identity. Through discussions of linguistic diversity, students become aware of differences and similarities among regions, ethnicities, age groups, genders, etc. Such discussions foster cross-cultural understanding.
2. Time, Continuity, and Change: Social Studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ways human beings view themselves in and over time.
General Application: Language itself is a complex time capsule, preserving, over decades and centuries, some aspects of syntax, semantics, pronunciation, and spelling, while modifying others beyond recognition. The Perspectives on Written & Spoken English unit highlights tension between people who deride all linguistic change and those who either study it systematically or celebrate creative additions to language. The unit on African American English (AAE) demonstrates the rich history of the dialect by introducing two theories about its origin, each of which date it back centuries to times of slavery. The integration of history and language will help to inform students of the ways in which human experience influences language and what that means in today’s context.
4. Individual Development and Identity: Social studies include experiences that provide for the study of individual development and identity.
General Application: Self-expression through language use is a reflection of personal identity. Units in Do You Speak American? encourage students to continue to build their language style-shifting skills by helping them recognize and appreciate their ability to do so naturally and masterfully. Additionally, acknowledgement and respect for different languages and dialects in the classroom provides marginalized linguistic minorities with self-respect and pride for his or her native tongue.
5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions: Social Studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interaction among individuals, groups, and institutions.
General Application: The units dispel common myths about language and language variation that help children build respect for people of different racial, ethnic, or regional background. Discussions of institutionalized discrimination and linguistic profiling inform students of hegemonic structures in society. Additionally, the series includes legal and educational responses to linguistic diversity and marginalization.
6. Power, Authority, and Governance: Social Studies should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.
General Application: Units provide questions surrounding language use and access to community, education, and professional development. Imbedded in these discussions are issues of institutions and the power structure within them. Legal and educational responses to linguistic diversity and marginalization are mentioned. Students are encouraged to challenge the abuse of power that lies in assumptions of linguistic homogeneity, as discussed in the African American English unit.
Do You Speak American? connects language and society by highlighting the ever-increasing linguistic diversity in the United States. The information it provides supports understanding of the psychological, social, historical, and political importance of language in America, thus making this program ideal for interdisciplinary study.
These resources offer background information for teachers, who may also want to assign them to 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
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