Colleges Try To Muffle `Mallspeak,' Like, Totally

Erica Linfante is, you know, like, totally aware of the teenage phenomenon linguists have dubbed "mallspeak."

Like most of her peers, the 13-year-old girl from Readington Township, N.J., uses the dialect herself - more than she would like to think.

"It's, like, you just say it. (Pause. Giggles.) Oh! I just did it. Anyway, I think it's a habit, you know, I mean, you talk like that with your friends; you talk like that at school; you say it, like, in front of - . . .

"Oops. Aah! I'm doing it again. It just kind of comes out."


Call it mallspeak, garbage talk, teenbonics, anything you want, but this is the idiom of today's youth - and the bane of educators and linguists who say it is invading college campuses and creeping into job interviews.

"Mallspeak is failure to allow silence until you have something generally worthwhile to say, and we've got to quit doing it," said Patricia Skarda, an English professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Smith is one of a growing number of colleges and universities waging an all-out war on mallspeak with speech centers and innovative programs designed to teach proper speech - and unteach mallspeak.

Everyone's heard it - this garbled version of English in which "goes" takes the place of "says" and "you know," "I mean" and especially "like" occupy every conversational pause. Girls seem to be afflicted more than boys.

Whether mallspeak originated in a mall is anyone's guess. But it has grown into an epidemic, and many are blaming the media for spreading it via television shows such as "Friends" and "Beverly Hills 90210," and teen movies - especially the comedy "Clueless."

"A lot of people picked it up from that movie," said Jen Sandorse, a senior at North Hunterdon High School in Clinton Township, N.J., who can't stop herself from overusing the word "whatever!" to save her life.

Her friend, Becky Toth, a 17-year-old high school honors student from Pittstown, N.J., can still recite lines from the movie - but she doesn't believe it played a major role in the way her generation communicates today.

" `Clueless'?" she says, rolling her eyes. "That is soooo five years ago."

But the lingo lives. Skarda recently followed two students walking across Smith's campus and counted the word "like" in their conversation 85 times. Now, some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country are making it their mission to muffle mallspeak.

Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania are among those setting up speaking programs to try to counter the teenage vernacular.

At Rutgers, where English professor and pop culture linguist William Lutz reminds his students that "one mark of the Oxford graduate is the use of Oxford English," the public speaking course is overenrolled.

At Smith, an all-women's college, first-year students are required to give oral presentations. Every slip into what Skarda calls "lazyspeak" is instantly corrected.

Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Mass., is poised to open a speaking center in the fall. There, students will learn the art of speaking without using the slang or its accompanying body language.

The facial expressions and the shoulder and hand movements that typically come with mallspeak are a form of "visual grammar," said Lee Bowie, director of the Speaking, Arguing and Writing Program at Mount Holyoke.

Kelly Egan, a 19-year-old elementary education major at Kean University in Union, N.J., is a living example: "Saying `Totally!' (shoulders heave, eyes flutter) is, like, (palms up) really (head shakes) a problem for me."

"I don't have a problem with that," answered Kelly's friend, Shannon Gaub, a sophomore at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J. "But I can't control `like.' I say `like' a lot. A lot. Like (left palm up) . . . see? (Eyes bulge, shoulders shrug). Like, I am forever saying `like.' "

Mallspeak speaks volumes about the speaker and what it says isn't flattering, Skarda said. " `Like' is an approximation - an unwillingness to say one thing. `You know' begs for agreement, as if the speaker is terribly unsure of him or herself. `I mean' indicates that the student does not, in fact, know what he or she means."

The danger of such slang, Skarda said, "is when students are interviewed for jobs beyond college, and for internships and fellowships and going abroad. It indicates a lazy mind."

Wayne Young has been subjected to more of those interviews than he likes to admit.

"When I interview these young people out of school, I look for how they speak," said Young, president of Management Recruiters of Morristown, N.J. "If they come across with any of this slang I won't hire them. I absolutely won't hire them." Case closed.

Kelly Egan, the Kean University student, is trying to break the habit: "I took a speech class in college last year and every time I would say `like' or any of that stuff they took two points off. I did pretty bad."

Since then, she said, "I try to catch myself talking like that. I don't want to sound ditsy. I mean, you know what I mean?"

Like, totally.