Do You Speak American?

November 25, 2009 at 1:02 PM | Posted in AmeriCorps, Class, Development | Leave a comment

It is well known that the drift of our dialect from its British origins is widening.  The extent to which we have made English “our own” was recently illuminated in my class when a vocabulary word inadvertently denoted both a person and an article of clothing; albeit while discussing Halloween.  When a picture of a cowboy costume was displayed, a student asked what the man was wearing on his legs.  The class aide replied, “Those are his chaps”.  Understandably, this answer confused our student.  He pointed again to the cowboy’s legs and repeatedly asked us where the chaps were in the picture. We realized that the student was previously exposed to British English as he searched for the cowboy’s supposed friends.

Following our country’s image as a “melting pot”; our dialect has assimilated a vast array of languages.  While this tendency may cause unanticipated issues when explaining words like “chap”, we can also turn it to our advantage.  Explaining the name of our country to a class that was 100% Spanish speaking was easier by borrowing the Spanish word “uno (the number one)” and relating it to “united”. 

Numerous studies have been conducted on the advent of “American English”.  One such documentary was produced by Robert MacNeil and PBS, titled: Do You Speak American?  MacNeil, who moved to the States 40 years ago, places emphasis on immigrants in both learning and producing American English.  As he travels across the country, he finds towns that speak primarily German or Spanish, including El Cenizo, Texas which made Spanish its official language in 1999.  MacNeil highlights the growing need for ESOL programs when he meets a family who learned German from their neighbors, instead of English, out of survival when they immigrated.  He also discovers a number of English dialects that have synthesized with French, Creole, and Arabic.  Moreover, the documentary encounters regions of the country (from Appalachia to California) that speak English with slang and accents so strong that they are incomprehensible to other Americans.

I’ve learned that viewing American English as dynamic rather than static is helpful for the classroom.  We inevitably teach a particular form of English that is fitted with lingo and accents specific to the teacher and subject to further change. 

– Matt Arnold,  AmeriCorps Instructor

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