1. Archive

How do you speak American?

There are many ways to speak American, and journalist Robert MacNeil has become fluent in many of them.

MacNeil spent months talking with people from all walks of life as well as language experts across the United States.

The result is the PBS three-hour documentary Do You Speak American?, a combination road trip and travelogue that looks at American language today.

MacNeil surveys how American English is changing and how surfers, Hollywood, immigrants, skaters, CB radio users and instant messaging influence the words we use. He also explores how regional dialects reflect local cultural identities and the conclusions people draw about Americans from how they speak.

Adding a bit of levity is comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who talks with MacNeil about the differences between Northern- and Southern-accented speech.

Linguist John Baugh demonstrates an ongoing experiment in "linguistic profiling" when he telephones a real estate agent about a rental apartment. Using three dialects _ African-American, Latino and neutral American _ he gets very different responses.

The documentary looks at the influence of Spanish on American English. MacNeil visits El Cenizo, Texas, which made Spanish its official language, and he talks with Allan Wall, a language teacher who lives in Mexico and is an advocate of making English the official language of the United States.

In California, MacNeil talks with linguist Carmen Fought about Chicano English, a "street talk" spoken in Los Angeles.

Fought says that Spanish is following "the classic pattern that the first generation born in the United States often will retain the home language, but by the second generation born here, the home language is very often lost."

"So I don't think that Spanish is a threat to English in any way. I think if anything, it's Spanish that is in danger," Fought says.

Also in California, performer Steve Harvey talks about the black American dialect, observing: "You do have to be bilingual in this country. And that means you can be very adept at slang, but you have to be adept at getting through a job interview."

One of MacNeil's favorite segments shows fifth-graders in Los Angeles playing a Jeopardy-style game in which they try to translate their "home language" into mainstream American.

"The kids are so animated and so bright and so involved in this lesson," MacNeil says. The language barrier can be a huge obstacle, "but these kids seem to be overcoming it with great verve."

MacNeil, who was born and grew up in Canada, says he has always been fascinated by words and the way people pronounce them. He recalls from his childhood that family members, including a grandmother from Chattanooga, Tenn., had different ways of speaking.

About 20 years ago, he explored The Story of English in a PBS documentary. Do You Speak American? was a natural followup.

"I think I went into this project half-believing the widespread assumption that the mass media would homogenize the country and gradually have us all talking the same," he says. "But the opposite is true. Some dialects may be dying out, but other regional dialects are becoming more unlike each other."