Do You Speak American? professional development materials for educators were produced by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) in Washington, DC. This material was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Do You Speak American? offers a range of perspectives on the different ways of using language in U.S. society. Host Robert MacNeil takes viewers on a journey through the United States, exploring how the language we use can define us, unite us, or separate us. The title highlights the central question raised throughout the series: What does it mean to “speak American”? To many, the obvious answer is that speaking American means speaking English. As revealed in the documentary, however, the answer is much more complex. Not all Americans speak English, and those who speak English do not all speak the same version. On the contrary, the English used in the United States differs from region to region, among ethnic and other social groups, and even by age and gender.
To explore the question of what it means to speak American, MacNeil travels around the country listening to people talk. He goes down the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Philadelphia, where he turns west into Pennsylvania and Ohio. From there, he heads south through Kentucky and Tennessee to Mississippi and into Louisiana and Texas. His journey then takes him to the West Coast, where he encounters the varieties of English spoken around Los Angeles. The program ends with a look at high tech language research in Palo Alto, California and a glimpse into the future of voice and computer technology from Microsoft headquarters in Washington State. All along the way, MacNeil asks people about the language they use and what it means in their lives: He talks to educators, musicians, politicians, television and radio personalities, journalists, movie producers, surfers, military personnel, and researchers. He also solicits the help of several sociolinguists—researchers engaged in the scientific study of language in its social context—who provide expert observations on language as a social phenomenon.
“Speaking American” means different things to different people, and because of the political and social debates that always surround language, there is no consensus on what speaking American is or should be. Do You Speak American? demonstrates that the way we speak is intrinsically tied to a number of complex factors, including ethnicity, political climate, socioeconomic status, historical events, and individual personality. The series offers a rare opportunity for viewers to hear and discuss how language shapes us as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.
Teachers have a special interest in language as it is used in the U.S. Because they are charged with supporting their students’ language and literacy development, and teaching students about the nature of language, they need and want to be well informed about language and contemporary linguistic issues.
This guide to using Do You Speak American? in professional development sessions can help teachers of all disciplines enhance their knowledge about how language is patterned and how it can vary. The more teachers know about variation in language, the better they can notice and understand patterns in their students’ speech and writing, and the better they can design language and literacy instruction.Do You Speak American? as a resource for their own learning may also want to use it in their classrooms for standards-based teaching and learning about language. Materials are available for using the Web-enabled DVD in high school English language arts and social studies classes. The materials include five thematic units and a Teachers’ Manual:
The Do You Speak American? program and accompanying materials are meant to be understandable and enlightening to people who have no formal training in linguistics but who are curious about language. The program is available on three Web-enabled DVDs. The DVD technology allows computer users to view links to the program’s Web site, where they will find activities, essays, maps, video clips, audio clips, and links to further information on the linguistic situation in the United States. These supporting materials will be helpful for teachers of all content areas who meet regularly in study groups.
They can be used to help teachers plan and conduct professional development sessions in which they reflect together on ideas presented in Do You Speak American? and make connections to their classrooms and schools.
To support thoughtful use of Do You Speak American?
in professional development, learning materials help viewers focus on
one or two language topics in each of five professional development
sessions. Each session includes sections of
Do You Speak American? that are identified by their location in the DVD. Because language topics recur throughout the program, groups will be able to revisit earlier discussions as they view new material on familiar topics.
In addition to the video, there are written materials that support learning about the topics selected for the session. The materials are intended for the session facilitator of the session and for the participants. They include an overview of the session, the session topics and key ideas, key terms, session objectives, the video sections used in the session and an overview of each, background information, resources, discussion questions, and learning activities. Many of the resources are available on the Do You Speak American? Web site. Discussion questions encourage teachers to reflect on how the language issues raised in each session affect their work. Activities are designed to strengthen participants’ knowledge about the topics. Extension activities raise issues for participants to think about and discuss at their next meeting.
The following suggestions will help session facilitators plan and
guide the sessions:
Study groups offer a democratic approach to professional
development. In the study group model, teachers work together over
extended periods of time to explore issues and challenges that have
direct impact on their professional lives and the lives of their
Suggested Guidelines for School-Based Study Groups on Language
Clair, N. (1998). Teacher study groups: Persistent questions in a
promising approach. TESOL Quarterly,
Research on effective professional development has shown best results when teachers participate actively in learning communities―that is, groups that meet together over a period of time to address common professional concerns. Teachers in a department or in a school can create a learning community by convening regularly―perhaps once a week for an hour, every other week for two hours, Saturday mornings once a month―and working together on a topic that they have identified as vital to their work. A major goal of a learning community is to build understandings that are immediately relevant to members’ professional practice, drawing on what they have learned from various sources, including their experience, their reading, and their viewing (Ball & Cohen, 1999; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Lieberman & Miller, 2001).
An example of a successful learning community is a study group of some 15 middle school English and social studies teachers in Lowell, Massachusetts, who met twice a month for a year to work on implementing their district’s new standards-based curriculum. Their focus was on teaching in ways that would help English language learners meet the standards. Group meetings involved analyzing the standards and creating instructional units and lesson plans that addressed them, examining students’ written work to understand its implications for teaching, and reading and discussing professional literature. The group facilitator helped guide discussion. The content of the sessions grew out of the questions asked and answered during the group members’ discussion and out of their analytic activities, all of which connected information from reading to the teachers’ work Clair & Adger, 2000).
Ball, D., & Cohen, D. (1999). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a practice-based theory of professional education. In G. Sykes & L. Darling-Hammond (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 3–32). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Clair, N. & Adger, C.T. (2000). Sustainable strategies for professional development in education reform. In K. Johnson (Ed.), Teacher Education. Case Studies in TESOL Practice Series, pp. 29-50. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
Lieberman, A., & Miller, L. (Eds.). (2001). Teachers caught in the action:
Professional development that matters. New York: Teachers
William and Flora Hewlett
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